Forty years of service via wigs & smiles
by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
John Scott, 68, is a gentle man. He is easy to talk to. Over a cup of coffee on a rare sunny Seattle afternoon, John told me that his friends call him Scotty, and his even closer friends know him as Olympia I Scotty - the very first empress of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle & the Olympic and Rainier Empire. Forty years ago, Scotty reigned supreme. Today, dressed conservatively in a blazer and button-down shirt, it would be hard to imagine him in a gown and a tiara - but the gleam in his eyes when he talks about 'the good old days' immediately gives him away. Much more than a pre-Stonewall Gay man, greater a person than a mere drag queen, Scotty is a wonderful historian. We talked for quite some time, and I felt lucky to be having coffee with royalty.
Scotty is aglow, and for good reason: he was recently bestowed the prestigious title of Queen Mother of Washington state by the International Court System. He joins only five other queens (from California, Colorado, Nebraska, New York, and Nevada) to hold such a post. After 40 years of pageants, fundraising, and mentoring, his day has finally come, and it is a beautiful thing.
'Forty years ago, I beat 22 contestants to become the first empress of Seattle in the Spanish Ballroom at the Olympic Hotel,' Scotty told Seattle Gay News. With a hint of disbelief, he continued. 'I won, and I still don't know how.'
Scotty won, and it thrust him and the newly formed Court of Seattle into history. From that first Coronation Ball in 1971 till now, the organization has had its ups and downs, but one thing has remained intact: tradition. The Court System is more than just a club for drag queens and their guards and emperors; it has become synonymous with community, friendship, and family. All one has to do is look over the photos that adorn the College of Monarchs page on the Court of Seattle's website (www.imperialcourtofseattle.com) to see just how many lives have been touched through the years.
HISTORY NEVER LOOKED
'In the late 1960s, I didn't really feel like I belonged,' Scotty said sheepishly. Then he brightened. 'But then I made the connection with the Court. We were like a small family. Over the years there have been times when we were forced to become political, but we never strayed from our mission of raising money through entertainment. The current Court of Seattle has gotten back to family.'
Scotty and I spoke at length about a very different reality: Gay Seattle in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For him, some of the memories are bittersweet.
'There are very few of us left,' he said. 'I'm still here, and my partner, John, but there really aren't many of us still around.'
But, like any true historian, Scotty began to tell me stories of days gone by. 'Forty years is a milestone, and there are so many wonderful things we were involved with that I am very proud of,' he said triumphantly.
Although he covered a plethora of people, places, and times, the stories were absolutely amazing.
Scotty says the early days of the Court of Seattle were not as they are today. 'We had to have secret meetings and pay off the cops,' he said. 'We'd meet at the Mocambo [a Gay bar and restaurant] & we kept a lot of secrets.'
Scotty tells me of the days when the Court of Seattle took on the police (and won) by exposing a corrupt SPD for shaking them down for payoffs. 'We got tired of it,' he recalls. 'In those days, if you didn't pay off the cops, they would harass you and you could be arrested just for being Gay.'
In a particularly politically motivated piece of the Court's history, Scotty reminisced about their involvement with Initiative 13. In January of 1978, two Seattle police officers filed Initiative 13 and called their organization Save Our Moral Ethics. In response, the Seattle community launched an aggressive 'No on 13' counter campaign against the effort to repeal the City's news anti-discrimination ordinances. If Initiative 13 passed, you could again be fired solely on the assumption or admittance that you were Gay or Lesbian. On November 7, Seattle voters rejected Initiative 13 by 63% to 37%.
Socially, the Court of Seattle stood up to bigotry, as well. 'We picketed channel 7 when the station manager Lloyd Cooney went after Gays,' said Scotty.
Much like the rest of the Gay community, the Court of Seattle would not remain immune to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. 'AIDS decimated us,' Scotty said sorrowfully. 'We lost quite a few members. There was just so much loss during those days. After 40 people died, I couldn't bring myself to go to any more funerals.'
Scotty said that he remembers how important it was for the Court to participate in the first Seattle AIDS Walk, but that the mood had little to do with Pride - instead, he said the walk was 'more like a funeral procession.' These days, he says he is happy to see the important changes that have come about in the fight for a cure. The AIDS Walk, he pointed out, is now a walk of defiance and hope.
COURT OF SEATTLE
'When the Court first began, we were all just being kind of silly,' he said. 'It felt great to win a title and wear a crown. Nowadays, the more recent empresses do it all. They make the rounds at the clubs, do outreach, and raise money.'
According to Scotty, it wasn't until the fourth coronation that the Seattle Court got an emperor - a tradition that had continued. Emperors, like empresses, have been of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Some women have even served as emperor. 'The Court is open to anyone,' said Scotty.
Scotty admits he's seen the Court of Seattle go through a lot of changes. 'I was empress before some of these queens were even born,' he joked. 'But I really get along with the younger queens. We always seem to find some common ground. Since Olympia XXX LaTrina Bidet on, I've cultivated friendships with them. Empresses like Olympia XXIX Gaysha Starr and Olympia XXXV Aleksa Manila are always out and about. I don't know how they do it. They are everywhere, and they are very smart and talented.'
Scotty admits that with all of the sudden interest in drag, many of the young queens bypass the Court and just perform. He says the biggest challenge facing the Court of Seattle is getting new people to join. 'Drag used to be exotic, but it isn't anymore. I want the younger queens and potential emperors to know that we are a fun bunch of people doing good work,' he said, 'and most of us aren't as bitchy as you might think. We need to get back to community because that is what it is all about.'
Indeed it is. The Imperial Court of Seattle has a very clear mission: to provide funds and services to other non-profits within the Gay and Lesbian Community of Seattle and King County, Washington.
To that end, the Court is a great place for anyone who would like to get involved with the community to do so. In fact, the Court is currently raising money to help send LGBT people to school. The JC/Lady Graytop Memorial Scholarship Fund, established in 1977, is a permanent memorial to Emperor J.C, James Christiansen, and Empress Lady Graytop, James Torchia, vibrant members of the LGBT community and The Imperial Court of Seattle. Since its inception, the court has awarded over $60,000 in various scholarships to deserving students.
'I'm proud of the work we do through the scholarship fund,' said Scotty. 'Anything helps when going to school.'
This is a big year for the Court, as it turns 40 years old. Scotty and the College of Monarchs plan on throwing one big party as they celebrate the last 40 years and elect a new empress and emperor. Please join the Court of Seattle for Coronation 2011, The 40th Annual President's Ball - An American Gala, at the Madison Renaissance Hotel on February 19 at 5 p.m. For more information about the Coronation, please visit the Court of Seattle online at www. imperialcourtofseattle.com/coronation.
'Come join us,' says Scotty. 'Let's have fun, raise money, and give help to those who need it - and entertain!'
The Seattle Gay News would like to wish The Imperial Court of Seattle many more happy and prosperous years.
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