Royalty sans serfs
Sacramento’s campiest social club, the Imperial Court gives altruism an aristocratic twist
The Imperial Court is in session in Sacramento. Part of a gay nonprofit organization with 70 chapters throughout North America, Sacramento’s branch—officially known as the Court of the Great Northwest Imperial Empire (CGNIE)—is equal parts social club and community-service organization.
“It’s all camp; it’s all for fun,” said Raquel Lincon about the court’s regal trappings. At the same time, he noted, “it gives a sense of leadership and responsibility.”
Lincon himself is the current reigning empress of the Sacramento chapter. His crowning took place during the chapter’s annual coronation in April, alongside that of Emperor Gary Vickers, Regent Devon and Grand Duchess Jena Un Dunt. In a nod to democracy, officers are elected each year by a constituency that extends from Elk Grove to Guerneville. Voting takes place at the Lambda Community Center.
Beyond the pomp and regalia, the court system is all about giving back to the gay and lesbian community through social and fund-raising functions, explained CGNIE President Mike Johnston, who also is the bookkeeper at Faces nightclub. The local chapter’s next function will be on December 17, when royalty and their entourages will climb aboard the Murder Mystery Wine Train in Napa to support local charities at $300 bucks a person. The trip includes a gourmet dinner, hotel lodging and a fully loaded bus with alcoholic beverages to and from the wine train.
“We are hoping to raise $10,000 in ticket sales to be split among Stonewall Democrats, Focus Foundation and breast-cancer research and treatment,” said Johnston.
According to CGNIE history, the first gay court was established in central Europe in the 1840s as a way to encourage governments to grant rights to homosexuals. Closer to home, the current Imperial Court system dates back to 1965, when founder Jose Saria, the first openly gay political candidate for San Francisco supervisor, put a crown on his head and proclaimed himself empress of San Francisco. Saria patterned the Imperial Court system after a traditional monarchy as a way to create leaders in the community and stand up for gay rights, Johnston said.
Although the courts initially were set up to be social clubs, they began to change in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. In response, the groups conducted numerous food, clothing and cash drives to provide direct care and assistance to the most needy. Today the court retains this tradition through a variety of charitable donation programs, including the Fairy Godfathers’ Fund, which provides needy beneficiaries with assistance to help pay rent and utilities.
Last year, the court also gave three $1,000 scholarships to students in the Sacramento City College theater-arts department. The gift was part of the La Kish Hayworth Memorial Fund, honoring the court’s 15th empress, who reigned back in 1989. More-recent events include the monthly Enchilada Feed with host Bianca Ramos, who has been a part of the court for most of the last 25 years.
The court’s most important fund-raising function remains the annual Rainbow Festival on Labor Day weekend. The group closes off K and 20th streets and invites 100 vendors for a small market and parade to celebrate gay pride in Sacramento. The most recent festival grossed more than $117,000, Johnston said.
CGNIE has given away more than $35,800 since last May to such charities as Women Escaping a Violent Environment (WEAVE); the Sacramento Center for AIDS Research, Education and Services (CARES) program; Breaking Barriers; Loaves & Fishes; and medical research. Seventy percent of the Imperial Court’s income is given away to charities, and the other 30 percent is used for insurance, permits and overhead costs. All the work is done on a volunteer basis.
The Imperial Courts also function as part of an international community, with ambassadors traveling to each other’s events. Johnston said his duties as emperor in 2000 cost him $20,000, most of which went to travel.
The price of royalty may be steep, but the basic membership fee is still $2 a month. The group meets at Club 21 on the first Tuesday of each month.