Well, he’s no longer the man I married—or at least the one I chatted with for a few minutes when he came by to confer on a story about the Eighth Coronation of Their Most Imperial Dynastic Majesties the Emperor and Empress of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana. A tall and elegant title, that, but not half as tall and elegant as the reigning empress herself, now teetering out of a burgundy Chevy Blazer on five-inch clear plastic heels just seconds after roaring into the parking lot in a cloud of gravel dust.
Gone is the quiet, buttoned-down legal assistant in the blue dress shirt who dropped by to discuss the impending transfer of power. In his place: Bianka Passidy, Empress VII of All Montana. More glamorous in her dark pageboy wig, plum lipstick and periwinkle eye shadow than any power-suited downtown businesswoman. Regally cool and commanding, even as she pauses to adjust her falsies beneath a sharp merlot suit and tug at a run in her black nylons.
In the past, subject peoples were apt to erect commemorative obelisks and engrave brass plaques where the feet of an empress touched the ground. Empress Bianka’s arrival at the Western Montana Gay and Lesbian Community Center is curiously without ceremony, signaling merely that it’s time to unlock the door of the center and convene a board meeting of the Imperial Sovereign Court. It’s the final organizational meeting before Coronation 2002 (this year’s Tolkienesque theme: “The Legend of the Rings of the Winds of Change”), at which time the Empress will step down and her anointed successor, elected by popular vote from the ranks of minor title-holders and city gay pageant winners, will ascend the throne. Empress Bianka’s duties today, though seemingly below her station, include making sure someone can haul the public address system over to the University Center, firming up the beverages, and warning participants in the musical numbers not to get so drunk they fall off the three-foot stage.
The Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana (henceforth the ISCSM) is a charitable nonprofit organization that serves Montana’s gay/lesbian/bisexual communities. Since the founding of the ISCSM in 1987, the organization has raised funds at around $50,000 and distributed them to dozens of charitable and human service groups in the area as well as a number of terminally ill individuals. The Montana organization, which currently has some 90 members distributed among affiliate courts in Butte and Billings, is part of a larger national “court system” with almost 80 officially registered chapters active around the country as well as in Canada and Mexico. The goal of the court, as stated in the organizational literature, is “to provide assistance to those in need and to do this in a social and entertaining manner.” Or, as Empress Bianka likes to put it: “We’re like a cross between the United Way and a theatre troupe.” You could call them Queers with Coffers, a community (shaved) chest with a kick-ass fun ethic that raises thousands of dollars a year through events like this weekend’s coronation extravaganza. The original Sovereign Court was established in San Francisco in 1965. The impressively regal-sounding entitlements of the court hierarchy, with locally-elected empresses and emperors (the Montana chapter’s reigning emperor is “Just” Wayne Emerald), imperial crown princes and princesses, can all be traced to a colorful saga of self-imposed royalty interwoven throughout the history of the Bay Area.
In fact, it all starts with Emperor Norton, not just one of the most colorful personalities in the history of San Francisco but also of the whole damn country. Part-time real estate speculator and full-time eccentric, Joshua A. Norton (1919–1880) immigrated to San Francisco from South Africa in 1849 with a $40,000 gift from his father. After nurturing his already sizeable bankroll into a small fortune in real estate, Norton lost it all in a failed attempt to corner the city’s rice market. Undeterred by his business failure— but thereafter also slightly bonkers—Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States “at the preemptory request of a large majority of [its] citizens,” by official decree on Sept. 17, 1859. During a delightfully absurdist rule that lasted until his death 21 years later, Emperor Norton also issued his own banknotes, abolished the Democratic and Republican parties, famously quelled a race riot by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and decreed a $25 fine to be assessed of anyone who, “after due and proper warning, shall be heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco.’”
The lucky aspirant who will succeed Bianka Passidy this Saturday might not be quite as colorful as the Emperor Norton or his dowager widow, though I, for one, would love to see a hefty fine levied against anyone heard to utter the equally smarmy “Zula” in reference to the seat of their imperial power. In addition to their duties organizing and overseeing fundraising events and the disbursal of the funds, Empress Bianka and Emperor Wayne’s successors will also wield the pair of the ornate, impressively hefty scepters that go with their titles. And, no doubt, they will look fabulous.
“We’re men and women who like to throw big parties and lip-sync to songs,” says the empress in the twilight of her reign. “If I can raise money for charity wearing a dress and looking good, so be it.”
See the Emperor and Empress in all their glory Friday, Sept. 13 and Saturday, Sept. 14 at AmVets. 8 PM. Call 728-6963 for the details.