By Ashley Naftule, November 2018 issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2018 here.
The grave of Emperor Joshua Norton is one of the most popular “attractions” in Colma. A city of graveyards, Colma is where the Bay Area buries their dead. Joshua Norton, who declared himself to be the Emperor of the United States in 1859, is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His grave is a popular destination for countercultural pilgrims looking to pay their respects to the nation’s most benevolent tyrant. Those visiting the Emperor might notice an odd sight: a nearby grave dedicated to the Widow Norton, which is strange considering because the eccentric pauper-emperor never married.
Buried at the foot of Norton’s grave is another one of the great self-made royals of American history, Jose Julio Sarria. If a disgraced businessman could declare himself the ruler of America, then why can’t a gay man call himself an Empress? Known as The Grand Mere and Absolute Empress I de San Francisco, Sarria was an outspoken activist who was the first openly gay candidate to run for office in the U.S. He also founded the sprawling Imperial Court System.
Across the nation, many gay community members have followed in Sarria’s by reinventing themselves as nobility. Like Julie Craig, one of the Imperial Sovereign Empire of Arizona’s most dedicated members.
The blonde and composed Craig had been deeply embedded in the Court scene before coming to Arizona. Already royalty in Minneapolis’s Court, Craig came over twenty-five years ago to serve as Empress in Reign II alongside Michael Gaffney. It was a smooth transition for Craig.
“It pretty much felt like home as soon as we moved down here,” Craig says. “There are not many cultural differences between the Imperial Court in Minneapolis and the one here. We’re both nonprofit organizations dedicated to raising money throughout the year for people and organizations that really need that money.”
One of the fascinating contradictions of the Court System is how a culture that prides itself on cheeky self-exaltation is also deeply altruistic. They may crown themselves as Emperors and Empresses and bedeck themselves in jewels and furs, but they share the wealth. The Courts across America have been fierce advocates for their communities, raising funds to help the disadvantaged and reinvest in their culture.
As Empress, Craig has been part of that fundraising drive, helping the Court raise thousands of dollars in charity and scholarship funds, Craig serves in a mentorship capacity as a Queen Mother. Craig has also made a mark on the local scene as one of the oldest living drag queens. “I’ve been doing drag shows for over 24 years,” Craig says.
Craig also works with the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association and maintains ties with leather organizations across the Valley. “The Court was started here by two other men who were closely involved with the leather community, so we try to stay connected with all the different groups.”
Like Norton and Sarria, the Imperial Court understands the power and agency that can come from reinventing yourself. As Empress, Julie Craig bears two distinct monikers: The White Diamond Star of the Desert and The Red Desert Rose legend of the Phoenix. When asked why Craig chose those regal titles, the Empress laughs.
“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” Craig chuckles. “And my husband and I like to give each other red roses, so that’s a part of me too.”
Echo: How did you get involved in the Court scene?
Craig: I started getting involved 25 years ago in Minneapolis. I was the very first Empress of Minnesota.
Echo: What initially brought you to Phoenix?
Craig: All the usual things that take you from one place to another: Wanting to make a change, work, having a new partner in my life.
Echo: In terms of Court culture, have you noticed any significant differences between the scene in Minneapolis and the one here in Phoenix?
Craig: I’ve found that there are not many cultural differences between the Imperial Court in Minneapolis and the one here. We’re both nonprofit organizations dedicated to raising money throughout the year for people and organizations that really need that money. They’re both 501(c)(3) organization, they’re both dedicated to helping other groups in their town.
Echo: What’s your current involvement with the Imperial Court? Are you still active in that community?
Craig: We’ve been involved with the Court here for thirteen years—ever since its onset, really. Since I became Empress and Michael Gaffney became Emperor. We’ll always maintain those titles; Once you are elected by the community, you’ll always have those titles. Otherwise, within the Court, I’m also the Queen Mother. We try to continue to help and inspire our members and to help people come up in the scene as well. We help the current reign, too, by answering their questions. Anything that helps empower them to be a better representative for the Court.
Echo: Tell us a little more about the charity work you do.
Craig: There’s so many to talk about. We like working mostly with smaller companies and organizations that need the money… We raise money by doing drag, but we also host cookouts and barbeques. We’ve been able to give out over $60,000 in college scholarships.
Echo: Wow. That’s impressive.
Craig: And that’s over the course of eleven years.
Echo: Do you work alongside other LGBTQ groups in the community?
Craig: The Court was started here by two other men who were closely involved with the leather community, so we try to stay connected with all the different groups. We also work with the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association.
Echo: And do you still do drag?
Craig: I’ve been doing drag shows for over 24 years. At this point, I’m the oldest living drag queen in the Valley.
Echo: I noticed that you have two additional titles, in addition to being an Empress: The White Diamond Star of the Desert & The Red Desert Rose legend of the Phoenix. Did you pick those for yourself or were they given to you?
Craig: Nobody gave them to us. Those are the monikers we chose for ourselves.
Congratulations to the Class of 2018! Meet the rest of the inductees here.