When I was a kid, my mom would always scold me for putting my elbows on the table at dinner by asking me, “What if you’re invited to dinner with the Queen of England one day? Will you put your elbows on the table then?” I always laughed at this, sure that the scenario of me dining with royalty was a pretty unrealistic one. But I realized recently that I should have listened to my mother and worked on my table manners—because last Saturday night, I attended a coronation.
The Sheraton Airport Hotel was filled with crowns and tiaras: queens, kings, dukes and princesses from all over the country filled the halls, chatting and ordering over-priced drinks from the bar. All these people are members of the International Court System, an organization of LGBTQ folks who raise money for a host of charities through, mostly, drag shows. There are chapters of the ICS in every large city in the US and throughout Canada and Mexico, and, though each of them operates separately, they frequently come together and support each other at yearly coronation events. The group takes the conceit of a royal court as their organization’s structure—adding new meaning to the terms “drag queen” and “drag king”—even though behind the scenes, all the “royalty” serve on a board and take equal part in fundraising efforts. On this particular night at the Sheraton, they were all there to celebrate the reign of Emperor Goliath and Empress Seliah of the United Court of the Sandias, and to witness the crowning of the two who would take their places.
The crowd was about as diverse as one could imagine. Although the titles involved in the court are highly gendered (“duke” vs. “duchess,” etc.), anyone can dress as “male” or “female” in the court, and a few mix signifiers—wearing stilettos with a suit, or rocking a full beard and a cocktail dress. It’s like a gay Renaissance Fair—people spend many hours and dollars on their outfits beforehand, travel long distances to participate, and then bow and curtsy all night in a contrived formality that, for just a little while, makes everyone feel like royalty.
The Alibi’s ace photographer Eric and I were two of the few uninitiated people in the room. The person sitting next to me at my dining table asked what my title was, to which I fumblingly replied, “Uh, reporter?” He flashed me his badge, which read “Supreme King of Phoenix, AZ.” I don’t think I’ve ever been one-upped so hard in my life.
I spoke briefly with Seliah, the reigning Empress XXIII, about the Court System and its work. “It’s like working another full-time job,” she said of being on the board. The United Court of the Sandias hosts fundraisers all year round, with the money they raise going to several charities—many HIV awareness programs, LGBTQ rights organizations, food pantries and homeless outreach programs. Besides their regular Sunday night drag shows at the Albuquerque Social Club, the UCS hosts many fundraiser events all year, including toy and canned food drives during the holidays, a car wash, and a drag queen softball game. At one event, you could pay to throw a pie at the drag queen of your choosing. “I’m the empress that’ll do anything for a dollar,” said Seliah, winking.
Once we were all seated and satiated with alcohol and the first course, the awards began. And continued. For hours. Everyone in the room must have left dragging bags of awards behind them. They were given by the reigning Empress Seliah and Emperor Goliath, to members of both the local court and to visiting members of out-of-state courts, for friendship, for hard work, for courage in the face of difficult times.
During each performance, the members of the court lined up in pairs, linked arm-in-arm, to delicately hand tips to the performer. As the performer took the cash they bowed graciously to the couple—the coronation is the one night all year that the performers get to keep all of their tips.
It wasn’t until midnight that we witnessed what we had all come for: the coronation. Amidst much fanfare and tears of happiness, Topher Daniels took the title of Emperor XXIV and Dahlia Rico Stratton that of Empress XXIV. During their year-long reign, these two young and enthusiastic drag performers will be required to have all the qualities of royalty, and then some: not only grace, leadership and good judgement, but a willingness to put in long and late hours to support their court. Because in this highly democratic empire, the ones with the biggest crowns are frequently those who work the hardest.