Reflections on My Year as a Windy City Empire Duchess

The shenanigans my friend Kate gets me into.

I’d been to a few of the Windy City Empire events to support my friend and because I really love drag shows and a lot of them happen at a neighborhood bar, Charlie’s Chicago, which is walking distance from where I live in Boystown in Chicago, the oldest officially recognized gay neighborhood in the United States. A country and western themed gay bar that also hosts drag shows, karaoke, burlesque, as well as country line and two-step dancing, Charlie’s is the home bar for the Windy City Empire, the Chicago chapter of the International Court System.

Then Kate asked me to be one of her duchesses. I thought to myself: What is this silliness? Why emperors and empresses, princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses? I’m an anarchist. I don’t get hierarchy. I can’t keep all these titles straight. What is this about? And what does a duchess do anyway? Like I don’t have enough on my plate already?

Then of course I noticed things on their Facebook page I wanted to fix. Even though I don’t want any responsibilities, I fall into them, mainly because I have opinions about how to fix Facebook pages.

So I became Empress Kate’s Duchess for Empire 15 of the Imperial City Court of the Prairie State Empire, or Windy City Empire for short.

I didn’t know about the International Court System before Kate got me involved, but I certainly feel like I should have known about it. It has a fascinating and important history. The revered Mama José Sarria, an advocate for civil rights, for all people but especially gay and trans people and drag performers, was the first Empress. The organization’s guiding ethos is to have fun while raising money for charities in their communities: “Raising Money One Dollar at a Time. From the Heart, Through the Court, For the Community.” Started in 1965, what came to be today’s International Court System is one of the largest and oldest LGBTQ+ organizations in the world, with over seventy chapters or “Empires” in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

There are many aspects that I feel I still don’t understand, such as the significance and responsibilities of the various roles and titles. In the beginning, there seemed to be an awful lot of rules, for example about something they call “Protocol,” which has to do with how people are introduced and described when doing their “walk” at Coronations, the yearly gala events each court holds to celebrate the end of one reign and usher in the new Emperor and Empress. But by this year’s Chicago Coronation in November, I came to realize a lot of it was just about being silly, in the spirit of camp.

Camp is the key to understanding what’s going on with all these titles, the formalwear, the very large costume jewelry, and the significance and subversiveness of the International Court System. Interestingly enough Susan Sontag’s iconic essay on camp was published in 1964, close to the founding date of the court system in 1965. Here’s an updated evaluation of camp by Bruce LaBruce, who happens to be the director of one of my favorite movies of all time, The Misandrists,

While writing this, I was motivated to watch Paris Burning on Netflix, which gave articulation to some things I had been thinking about, some insight into these glamorous, if tongue-in-cheek, performances of royalty, pomp and circumstance.

I very much enjoy performing in drag. I like practicing the numbers. I love music, but I can’t sing at all, so dancing around and lip-synching is a great outlet for me. I’ve never been much for costumes and makeup. At first I didn’t want to spend too much money on it until I decided I liked performing drag at their shows. But now that I’ve decided that I like it, I’m building up my collection: a couple of wigs; sports bras in lieu of binders; men’s clothing from eBay and thrift stores, etc. I have two drag characters: a male, Hipster Ken; and a female, Cougar Barbie.

Hipster Ken performing Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”
Hipster Ken performing Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”

Drag is a way for me to share my love of music, dance, performance, and gender-bending. I’ll get more involved with the costume and makeup aspect as I pursue it. It will be like I’m my own doll to dress up!

I like the people, especially some of the drag performers and kinky fetish people I’ve met. Some of the drag performers have helped me think about my drag characters and their help has been invaluable. Also, I just like being around other kinky people.

I also like raising money for good causes. I was especially proud that Kate chose Project Fierce Chicago, which helps homeless LGBTQ+ youth, as her cause. We will continue to raise money for Project Fierce as one of our causes in the upcoming year. Currently they’re focused on their Emergency Relief Fund for young people who need funds to keep housing or assistance with barriers that could lead to homelessness. Some folks who have received funds have been homeless and needed assistance with basic necessities. Additionally, the PFC Emergency Fund has been able to provide critical financial resources to LGBTQ+ young adults experiencing housing instability who needed support making rent payments, covering utilities like electricity and gas, accessing Ventra passes, and purchasing essential household goods.

I like putting little shows together like my singer-songwriter night . One of my Duchess duties was to organize an event. Putting together a show is a responsibility, but the payoff is that I get to realize my vision. I like coming up with an interesting bill of performers.

Yes, there’s the raising money for charity, but that’s not the whole point. If I wanted to give money to charity, I could just write a check or click on a Paypal link. These shows that we do are about visibility, awareness, community. I was able to sell people on the idea of the show partly because of the cause. I like creating these win-win-win situations where the venue and the performers and the cause all benefit from their shared association with the event.

Mainly the various courts put on drag shows. The tips the performers collect go to charity. About half of all court members are drag performers. Most of the rest are some variant of LGBTQ+, though all are welcome to be members. There is definitely a desire and a push to be diverse and inclusive.

The most striking event for me was the Out-of-Town Show I saw when I went to Buffalo, New York for their Coronation weekend. People of all different ages, sizes, shapes, races, genders gathered together, many in full drag or campy formalwear, performed on a stage in a packed bar. In all the performances, I saw people sharing themselves and their love of music.

In talking with the various people I met that weekend, and also with my fellow Chicago court members, I’ve come to understand that, for a lot of them, the court is a way of developing their own leadership and organization skills through the responsibilities that their royal titles bestow upon them. It is also a form of activism, a way for them to take action on issues that are important to them. Throughout the history of the organization, a lot of the causes supported have been AIDS-related, both research on the disease itself and support for the people suffering from it. I know many members care deeply about the upcoming LGBTQ+ generations. Hearts go out to those in small towns, some in the Bible Belt, who suffer because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, some dealing with bullying and rejection from church and family members, some depressed and alone, some even suicidal or homeless.

When I first got involved with the court, members kept telling me it was like a family, which was not a selling point for me. Family has associations of obligations and conflict for me, though I guess, for some people, it has associations of acceptance and security.

I became more aware of drag families. It was very sweet to watch drag mothers with their drag daughters, bringing them gifts and taking pride in their accomplishments.

I’m looking forward to performing at future Windy City Empire events. Being a member of the court is a responsibility, but it’s a lot of fun too.

Feature photo: Duchess Elizabeth in tux next to Empress Kate in her ball gown. Photo credit to Joseph Stevens.ELIZABETH HARPERWindy City EmpireInternational Court SystemChicagoCoronation Galacharitydrag showsLGBTQ+José Sarriafriendscamp