Imperial Court marks 50 years of outreach, activism
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2015-12-02
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With the goal of providing LGBT people with a safe space to meet and raise funds, World War II veteran and gay Latino-American Jose Julio Sarria founded the first chapter of the International Imperial Court in San Francisco, California, in 1965.

Sarria was also the first openly gay candidate to run for public office, as supervisor of the city and county of San Francisco, in 1961—years before Harvey Milk ran and won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

When Sarria died in 2013, Nicole Murray Ramirez was named CEO and executive director of International Imperial Court. ( Ramirez also holds the title of Queen Mother I of the Americas. ) Ramirez called Sarria the Rosa Parks of the LGBT-rights movement when he died.

Since the organization's founding, the International Imperial Court System has added chapters in 67 cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico including Chicago—Imperial Windy City Court of the Prairie State Empire, Inc.—and is one of the few international LGBT organizations in existence.

Emperor 11 Neil Douglas James was recently named the court's board president and also heads the Chicago chapter.

"As incoming board president for the 2016 year, I see my job as keeping the court legal and running the business of the court," said James. "My involvement in the court started 10 years ago and two years ago I stepped up as the fundraising chair for the Chicago Court, first as Imperial crown prince and then as emperor. I selected The Night Ministries and The Leather Archives and Museum as our charities for the year. Supporting homeless youth and the preservation of gay history are very important to me. If we don't take care of our children no one else will. If we don't preserve and tell our stories, no one else will."

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Recently, the organization marked its 50th year of existence with a state gala dinner at the Sentinel Hotel in Portland, Oregon, with special guests Jim Obergefell ( lead plaintiff, Supreme Court case Obergefell v Hodges ), Rev. Troy Perry ( founder, Metropolitan Community Church ), Michael Connolly ( member of the legislative assembly in Alberta, Canada ), Cleve Jones ( founder, NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt ), Judy and Dennis Shepard ( founders, Matthew Shepard Foundation ), Hon. Toni Atkins ( California assembly speaker ), Stuart Milk ( founder, Harvey Milk Foundation ), Hon. Todd Gloria ( former mayor and current councilman of San Diego ) and Dustin Lance Black ( Academy Award screenwriter winner for "Milk" ).

The gala also honored five LGBT couples who've been together for 40 plus years with the designation—Golden Jubilee Royal Couples. Obergefell was given the honor of presenting the couples with their awards.

"One of the first LGBT student scholarships in North America was started by the Imperial Courts in 1979, and since then the over 40 court chapters have raised millions of dollars to help needy students," said Ramirez. "After Jose's death, I established the International Jose Julio Sarria Scholarship Program for LGBT students in the United States, Canada and Mexico. At our 50th anniversary gala celebration, we announced the Court's financial endowment of this scholarship with $95,000 and will officially begin this educational program in 2016."

The International Imperial Court has been likened to the Shriners or the Elks in that its main focus and goal is charity fundraising. Over the years the Court has supported causes and given financial support in Africa, Israel and Mexico. The Court is also the founding sponsor of Development in Gardening ( DIG ). DIG is responsible for improving the lives and health of about 23,000 Africans by planting and maintaining 50 large community gardens on the African continent. The Court also gave the Matthew Shepard Foundation over $125,000 this past year to help "erase hate in schools."

In the 1970s, court members were involved in efforts to defeat Anita Bryant's various anti-LGBT referendums across the United States. The Court was also involved with the National LGBTQ March on Washington, raised funds to fight HIV/AIDS since the 1980s and lead the successful efforts to get the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp in honor of Harvey Milk. Now the Court is working to get a stamp issued in honor of Bayard Rustin and a Navy vessel named after Harvey Milk, who was a Navy veteran.

The Court also has partnerships with the Harvey Milk Foundation, the Trevor Project, Egale Canada and the International Gay Rodeo Association.

"It's my hope that our community will learn more about the Imperial Court and our important place as pioneers and trailblazers in the history of our community," said Ramirez. "As I often say, 'A community that does not know where it came from does not know where it's going.'"

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