Thirty-five-year-old Empress Selena Blaque stands about 6-feet 5-inches tall from the tip of a tiara to the points of a pair of gold stiletto heels. Accompanied by Emperor JD Morgan, Selena bows before each performer, hands him a dollar bill and receives a deep bow in return. Performers, court members and audience alike are gathered at Visual Arts Collective for the Imperial Sovereign Gem Court of Idaho's annual Closet Ball, a competition in which experienced drag queens have one hour to transform a young man who has never done drag before into a (hopefully) gorgeous woman. After a lip-synched performance, one new queen--and his sponsor--walk away with winner's bragging rights.
At the end of the night, ISGCI had raised about $250 for myriad charities they support. And although fundraising is ISGCI's main mission, functions like these, which almost always include drag shows, also allow those who reign to don splashy jewelry, sparkling dresses, perfectly applied makeup and teased coifs--and their other personas.
The ISGCI is in its 30th reign--although it's in its 32nd year--and Empress Selena, aka Jamie Staton, is Idaho's highest ranking member, along with his emperor, JD Morgan. Staton's full court title is The Illuminating Amethyst Empress, Her Most Imperial Sovereign Majesty, Empress 32 of All of Idaho. The Gem Court monarchy also includes a prince and a princess and is the umbrella organization for the Tree Fund (they plant trees as memorials to people who have died from AIDS), Miss Gay Idaho and Miss Gay Boise Pride.
The ISGCI is a nonprofit organization and part of a larger court system with chapters in 68 cities in Canada, the United States and Mexico. The Imperial Court was founded in San Francisco in 1965 by World War II veteran, LGBT activist and drag queen Jose Julio Sarria, who is rumored to have said he started the court because, he said, "there are too many queens around here and I want to be the queen."
When Sarria stepped down in 2007, his heir apparent, LGBT and Latino activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez, assumed the role of ruler. Within the courts, Murray-Ramirez is addressed as Nicole the Great, Queen Mother of the Americas. Outside of the courts, he is addressed as commissioner, as in city commissioner of San Diego, Calif., a position that requires he wear a suit and a tie. Regardless of which role--or outfit--he is in, his legal name is Nicole and people often do a double take upon first meeting him, especially in his political circles. Like the time he met Bill Clinton.
"[Clinton] looked down at my name tag and said, surprised, 'Your name is Nicole?' I said, 'Yes (his deep voice taking on a high affectation). Can you guess why?" Murray-Ramirez said over a throaty laugh.
The loquacious Murray-Ramirez is a prominent figure in Southern California politics, California's LGBT community and the Latino community. He was friends with Harvey Milk, has served five mayors of San Diego in various roles and is a recipient of the Cesar Chavez Humanitarian Award. His charitable work with organizations through the Imperial Court is no less impressive, though it is slightly less visible.
"Every court is required to raise money for the Matthew Shepard Foundation," Murray-Ramirez said. "We raised $100,000 dollars one month.
"We're like the gay and lesbian Shriners," Murray-Ramirez added with a chuckle.
That service aspect was a big pull for Staton.
"We've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Basically what we do is [drag] shows and food fundraisers and we go out in the community," Staton said. "At the end of the year, we give all the money we've raised to other non profit organizations."
Born in Virginia into a religious family, Staton had an ugly childhood--he lived on his own at 14--which seems to have instilled two things in him: an incredibly strong drive to mentor and help young gays, and a strong separation between the identities of Jamie and Selena, something so different from Murray-Ramirez's public melding of his personas.
"It's funny, because I don't pay much attention to [Jamie]," Staton said. "I'm a completely different person when I put on Selena. Jamie is very shy ... he is the type of person who would go to the bar and sit in the corner." He is unlike Selena, who loves fashion, makes her own costumes, doesn't believe in secrets and does backflips off the stage during her performances.
Staton never wants another young and upcoming queen to feel like a shrinking violet. He'd like to see them all have the confidence that people like himself and Murray-Ramirez have, or at least embrace a persona that allows for that. Embracing--or not embracing--that persona, however, can sometimes be complicated.
During the Closet Ball, Selena invited Princess Andrea Morgan on stage, but when Andrea--a man--came on stage in men's clothes, Selena wasn't sure how to refer to him. They joked, but it was a small glimpse at the confusion drag queens are so often confronted with.
What Staton hopes is to help upcoming queens gain enough confidence in themselves to outweigh whatever hardships they may have faced. He wants to be a supportive mother figure to them, something he never really had. It was only recently that Staton's mother asked to see pictures of Selena.
"[I want to tell her] no matter who you see in front of you, I'm always going to be your son," Staton said. "No matter how many name changes I go through, no matter how many stages of becoming a woman, I'm always going to be ... I'm going to say it for the first time on record ... the name I was born with: Enoch Paul Staton."