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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 8, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 6
Empress Nicole and the Court
Section One
ALL STORIES
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Empress Nicole and the Court

The ICS grande dame reflects on a lifetime of activism

by James Whitely - SGN Staff Writer

On Saturday, February 16, The Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle will hold its annual Coronation. Now in its 43rd year, the Coronation is one of the longest-running LGBT events in the Northwest.

SGN chatted with Empress Nicole the Great de San Diego, head of the International Court System (ICS) and Queen Mother of the Americas, about the event on Presidents' Day weekend, the history of the Court, and its direction today.

YEAR OF THE ELDERS
Empress Nicole was given control over the Court at the 2007 Coronation in Seattle, when Empress José Sarria, founder of the ICS, retired. This year, Empress Nicole is 'returning to the scene of the crime' to give her State of the Empire Address. In honor of Sarria's 90th birthday, Empress Nicole has proclaimed 2013 as 'the Year of the Elders.'

'Our community needs to treat our seniors with more respect and also recognize them for being the trailblazers that they are. It is our Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender seniors that are the most isolated,' said Empress Nicole. 'In a Gay bar, a bartender often won't even engage in conversation with a senior.'

'[Our seniors] lived through a time when you couldn't dance with each other, you couldn't kiss each other in public, you'd get arrested for lewd conduct. It was against the law to have homosexual sex,' Empress Nicole told SGN. 'They didn't have to be an activist [to get in trouble with the law], they just had to be themselves. They lived through everything and they have a story to tell.

'We're all going to become seniors,' added Nicole. 'Now is the time to not only be more respectful, but more inclusive. It seems like a lot of organizations remember the seniors around the holidays, but they need to be doing it all the time.'

The year designation is also a fundraising vehicle. Last year was proclaimed to be for Gay and Lesbian veterans, and the Court focused on fundraising for military charities. The year prior was for youth, and the Court raised money for the Trevor Project and the Matthew Shepard Foundation. For the Year of the Elders, the primary organization the Court intends to support is Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), a national nonprofit.

Since taking the helm of the Court in February 2007, Empress Nicole has focused on bringing more structure and leadership to the organization. She has appointed more women - both Lesbian and straight - as well as more people of color and more Transgendered people to the ICS Council.

'It's a very exciting time,' said Empress Nicole. 'We're not the only game in town - certainly we don't have the same influence we used to - but I gave a commitment to José that her legacy and her organization would not be lost.'

A COMMUNITY PIONEER
The Court is an organization rich in history - much more so than most other LGBT organizations.

'In those dark ages, in the early years of the 1980s, there were no corporate sponsors. People thought you could get [AIDS] in the air. The Court was opening food banks. We were responding by building communities. There were no centers - there were only the tavern guilds, the Mattachine, and the Imperial Court. We raised the money - we still do,' said Empress Nicole.

The '80s, she said, were 'bad enough in the states, but in Mexico, it would make you cry.'

The court has many chapters in Mexico that are still quite popular, largely because of the Court's presence in the country during the AIDS crisis. Over the years, the Court raised more than $200,000 to fund AIDS clinics in Tijuana and further south. Empress Nicole said that not only did Mexico's then-existing health clinics refuse to admit or treat HIV/AIDS patients, but when they died, their families were responsible for obtaining their own body bags. Because of Empress Nicole's contacts, the mayor of San Diego at the time, Maureen O'Connor, provided the Court with body bags.

'We snuck body bags from the mayor's office during the night, then across the border into Tijuana,' said Empress Nicole. 'No one else was helping them.'

MARINES: NO TOYS FROM GAYS
When Christmas rolled around, the Court would do toy drives. In 1974, the Court collected more than 600 toys in San Diego alone, but when they went to donate them to the Marines' Toys for Tots program, they were told that 'the U.S. Marines do not accept toys from homosexuals.'

In short, Empress Nicole sees that the Court paved the way for the things that more mainstream, corporate-sponsored LGBT organizations are doing today. The court began the first LGBT scholarship program ever in 1979; they were in the trenches when no one else would even speak about AIDS; and founder Sarria, in 1961, was the first openly Gay person ever to run for public office (specifically, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors).

Empress Nicole said that she sees the court as 'the LGBT Elks or Shriners of the world, except we don't wear funny hats, we just wear crowns, gowns, and uniforms.'

Empress Nicole has a history of activism stretching back more than 40 years, both inside and outside the Court. She marched with Cesar Chávez in the 1960s grape boycott; she served on the boards of the National Gay Rights Lobby (which later became the Human Rights Commission) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; she chaired the Stonewall 25th anniversary rally in New York City, which drew half a million people; she served on the planning committees for all five Marches on Washington; and she has served the last five mayors of San Diego as chair of the mayor's GLBT Advisory Board. She has also served on the GLBT Advisory Board to the city's police chief.

A GLOBAL EMPIRE
Today, the International Court System (ICS) has 68 chapters in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Beyond the shimmer of their crowns, the elegance of their sashes, and their grand titles, they have made a difference in many people's lives for many years.

The Court is an organization that knows its history and the importance of it.

'A movement that doesn't know where it came from can't know where it's going,' said Empress Nicole in New York City's Central Park in 1994, 25 years after Stonewall.

'I'm glad there's a national spotlight. Things are changing, but the Court has played a large part in laying the groundwork for that,' Empress Nicole told SGN. 'I'm blessed to be leading an organization of so many unsung heroes. It its my hope to bring the Court System into the 21st century.'

'Our heart still beats the same - it beats for the community, for the voiceless, for the marginalized and disregarded,' added Empress Nicole.

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