“50 YEARS OF FABULOUS”— The Imperial Court

“50 Years of Fabulous”

The Imperial Council

Amos Lassen

“50 Years of Fabulous” is a fascinating documentary that celebrates what makes San Francisco a unique, powerful, and heartwarming home for the LGBTQ community. Filmmaker Jethro Patalinghug does this through concentrating on the vibrant history of the Imperial Council, the oldest LGBTQ charity organization in the world.

The Imperial Council was founded in San Francisco by activist and drag queen José Sarria, (who was also the first openly gay man to run for political office in the United States), in 1961 and since then the Council has helped shape LGBTQ life and history in San Francisco. Each year, the colorful Council crowns an Emperor and Empress who become the faces of the non-profit group. The Imperial Council celebrates unity, pride and a dedication to helping others as it advocates for human rights, hosts rousing events, and generates s lot of money for Bay Area charitable organizations.

The documentary combines historical footage and photos with contemporary interviews and delightful performances, spotlighting gay culture that shows the group’s impact, as well as some of the challenges it currently faces.

 Director Patalinghug takes a look at the history of the organization history as it celebrates its 50 year anniversary and now starts to question if there is still place for it in today’s LGBTQ community.

Sarria believed that the community should not just come out of the shadows but be proud of what he called the nobility of being gay. Thus the Court system was created with a system of royal titles to recognize the roles that its members would play.  He intended that the Court would join with other LGBT organizations and lead the move to equal rights.

The organization is part social, part political but its real greatness is as a dynamic fundraising operation that would help fund crucial LGBT services and charities.  It naturally really came into its own during the AIDS Epidemic which devastated their hometown far more than most.  By mounting daily events it raised much-needed millions of dollars to help people pay for medications, rent and even funeral services.

The Council/Court excels in all its traditions especially the annual election and coronation of its Empress & Emperor who must use their year in office to not just further the cause but raise a substantial amount of money.  They all dress up in their elaborate regal drag with their huge wigs topped off with crowns and tiaras, and even the Emperors get to sport gold laurel leaf crowns.

Patalinghug interviews some of the Courts past Empresses and Emperors and what we see is their happiness of being a part of this rather wonderful old organization.  It includes a clip from a 2004 interview with Sarria himself, but the most moving part of the film by far is his funeral held in a Cathedral with the entire Court in their best black drag and dressed up to the nines in his honor.

The latter part if the film is given over to discussing how the LGBT community has both evolved and embraced this new age of technology giving us different perspectives on how we now congregate and interact with each other.  

Leave a Reply