The legendary drag queen, activist, philanthropist and mother hen Juanita from San Francisco MORE! is ready to try a new role in the city: Empress.
After a long year of no parties and only a few opportunities to get into the air at all – most of them virtual – Ms. MORE! would like to bring notoriety and fundraising skills to the oldest nonprofit LGTBQ + in the country and possibly the world, the Imperial Council of San Francisco. The Imperial Council that founded the “mother-court” of today’s international organization began as a kind of joke – in which local drag queen and activist Jose Sarria addressed Empress I, the Widow Norton (a reference to the Kook Emperor of San Francisco from the 19th century) explained Norton).
The founding story of the Imperial Council was founded in 1965 and is told in the documentary 50 Years of Fabulous from 2018. The group continues its fundraising and charity work. And Juanita MORE !, who walked in circles a bit away from the imperial court during her four decades in San Francisco, now wants to be her Empress LVI – the reigning Empress LV, Mimi Osa, will pass the crown on in a virtual coronation ceremony on April 24th . Long-time friend and stylist of MORE !, Mr. David Glamamore, is also running for Emperor.
The vote will take place on Saturday 17th April in three places: The Cinch on Polk Street (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), Castro Muni Station (12 p.m. to 6 p.m.), and The Powerhouse on SoMa (1 p.m. to 5 p.m.) – and Juanita says Supervisor Aaron Peskin and Supervisor Matt Haney promised to come You and cast the first ballot papers in the Cinch or Powerhouse.
Below is a pre-election conversation that SFist had with Juanita this week.
SFist: Tell me about your pandemic year – what else did you cook besides a lot?
Juanita: It’s been a long year. And of course I miss dinner parties, among other things. For entertaining myself at home – I cook so much, I cook every day as part of my artistic release – when people are around it’s just a combination of all the things mothers do. I think that’s what I miss the most. Of course, I’ve had moments with all the other things, with depression, with anger, with frustration – you know all the other things that go with it [the pandemic]. The trauma from this still exists. As exciting as it is that San Francisco is doing so well and we are opening up, there is still trauma associated with it. I wasn’t shy about asking people how they were feeling, and there are still a lot of people who say, “I’m still scared! I still want to wear my mask! ‘It’s still there.
Oh yeah, I think that kind of tension is going to last at least until the end of the year as people are not entirely comfortable in public spaces. But on the other hand, give them some alcohol and they’ll be fine in no time.
There are people who are ready in many ways and I salute them. I will get there!
What else did you do? I know you did Art Mart.
Yeah, I did the Noe Art Mart – Chris Hastings from The Lookout asked me to be a part of it. I was very excited to be a part of it, especially at the beginning, because the first time I did it was the first time in over a year that I’d seen a lot of people. It was emotional for a lot of people. I saw tears in people’s eyes when they talked to me – and they could be tears of happiness or tears of fear, I don’t know. [laughs] It felt great and it felt like something new was going to happen. Also, this space gives artists – I’ve always been a master of local artists – the chance to see some of them able to sell things they create when they didn’t have another point of sale to sell their work. It is great. There are people who sell things there who have never sold their work or who have never met the people they consider their customers. They sold things online but they have never met any of the people.
What was your first encounter with the Imperial Court of San Francisco?
It goes so far back. It goes back to when I first moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s. I moved from Nob Hill to Castro in 1983, so when the AIDS epidemic began, I lived in Castro, on the corner of Beaver and Noe until 1987. One of my roommates had moved to New York and I visited him there about twice a year. And in 1987 I started thinking about taking the plunge and moving there myself – you have to understand that I was born in the Bay Area, grew up in the East Bay, and came out as a teenager, so I decided to go to New Moving York really was like really leaving the nest. But even in 1987 I felt that if I moved to New York I would escape the AIDS epidemic and the 24/7 darkness that surrounded me where I lived.
That was of course not true. I moved to New York and ended up in the West Village, one block from Christopher Street and one block from the West Side Highway. It was around this time that the Court began to reach its peak in its goals – to raise money, and at that point it was raising money for people who were HIV positive and had AIDS and whose rent had to be paid. That was the culmination of their triumph for me. I remember hearing about it for the first time at this point.
Perhaps you can explain it to those who do not know what the imperial court is and how it came about.
The Imperial Council started with Jose Sarria, who was a forerunner and pioneer in doing what I think is the best of everything he has done in his life: he understood how to fellowship brings together. I did and I continue to do so.
In the late 1950s, when Jose returned to town from worship, it was illegal to be gay or lesbian. They could be arrested or have a lobotomy – it was that simple. Jose Sarria began to fight for the right that gay people exist as themselves and gather in this city, and he created a community. That really was the beginning and the heart of Jose’s vision. There were of course events like the Beaux Arts Ball – my hairdresser and others told me about it – and because they took place on Halloween, people were allowed to wear drag or costume until midnight without being arrested. [Ed. Note: The Beaux Arts Ball was an annual event thrown by the SF gay bar association The Tavern Guild, and it became the locus of a seminal protest on Halloween 1969 with hundreds of non-attendees protesting the idea that cross-dressing was only allowed one day a year.]
The Beaux Arts Ball decided on one of their evenings [in 1965] Jose to crown Queen of the Ball in recognition of all his work in the community. And he said, “I am already a queen. I will be your empress now.” From there he began laying the foundation for the imperial council. We are the mother court here in San Francisco, and there are courts all over the world now, and millions of dollars have been raised.
Did you know Jose Sarria well personally?
No. I met Jose in 2005 when he received the Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award from SF Pride, and that year I was the Community Grand Marshal. When I first met him it was definitely like meeting kings. He sat like that. He demanded that respect, and I was all for it. He really looked me up and down and I was kind of in awe. I loved it when he looked me up and down – because it wasn’t just about checking my outfit. He looked a little deeper if you know what I mean.
Empress I Jose Sarria attends Juanita MORE’s first Pride party in 2005! In the Phoenix Hotel, Juanita on the right. Photo by Dan Nicoletta
How long did you think about running for Empress?
Can’t say I’ve always considered running for Empress, but I can say that I’ve been asked to run for Empress a few times. It wasn’t until last year when I saw 50 Years of Fabulous that I started to think, “It’s time.” The film shows the beginnings of the Imperial Council, its peak in the 80s and its slow decline, and by the end I felt like we can’t lose this. It’s the world’s LGBTQ nonprofit organization after 55+ years, and that’s a big deal. It’s a huge piece of LGBTQ history, and my concern is to keep and perpetuate this strange story. I just felt like it was my time to do this and I have a lot of supporters and a lot of family members here and a lot of friends and I thought maybe I could shed a brighter light on this organization and maybe keep it going a little longer hold .
What has the organization been doing lately?
The organization is still doing what its goals were in the beginning – it is still raising money and distributing it back to the community. It’s a very similar model to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. When I look at the way I’ve always got things done in this town, the court and I work in different ways. I’m super forward-thinking, I’m a doer, and I get things done and I have a great team of people to help me with that. I hope to bring some of that energy to the judicial system. It’s time to take them in an exciting new direction.
I also heard about the LGBTQ asylum project and the Court of Justice has given this organization excellent support. But the part that I was missing is the speaker – you don’t hear about the work of the court outside of very small circles so I think I can bring that into the organization. Help get the word out.
Why do you think the San Francisco drag scene has been largely a separate world from the Imperial Court over the past few decades?
I think the San Francisco drag scene in general has always had a lot of unique pieces. It was never just one thing, it is broken down into many things. It’s always been that way, and it’s one of the things that makes San Francisco drag so interesting, diverse, and much more creative. This is a great thing for me.
What do you hope to do during your reign and will there be bakery sales?
I think there must be something right? If I get elected and get in there, I want to look back on some of the super creative, brilliant ideas from past empresses and maybe revive some of them. Like the queen riding an elephant down Polk Street! [Ed. Note: That was Empress X Doris, who rode an elephant in San Francisco’s Pride Parade down Polk Street in 1975.] It could be really fun!
Connected: Pioneering gay activist Jose Sarria dies at the age of 90