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San Diego’s Imperial Court Celebrates 45th ‘Coronation’

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Nicole Murray-Ramirez, right, stands next to fellow court member Roxy Bleu in front of a display honoring the International Imperial Court System, Feb. 1, 2017.

The International Imperial Court System is a fraternal and charitable organization with a twist: It's ruled by drag queens. The San Diego chapter celebrates the crowning of its 45th "emperor" and "empress" on Saturday.


Nicole Murray-Ramirez may look regal when she's dressed up in drag as the head of the International Imperial Court System. But as she lifts up the hem of her black beaded gown, she reveals a secret: Underneath the royal garb, she's wearing a pair of loose black pants and foam slippers.

"Be comfortable," she said at a recent gathering of court members. "Think about this: Who would go under Queen Elizabeth's dress? No one. And no one's going under mine."

The International Imperial Court System is a network of 68 local charitable organizations across the United States, Canada and Mexico. Each chapter is lead by an "emperor" and "empress," crowned each year in a coronation ceremony. The San Diego chapter celebrates its 45th coronation on Saturday.

Murray-Ramirez's official title in the court system is Empress Nicole the Great, Queen Mother I of the Americas. She's the highest-ranking member of the international court and a co-founder of the San Diego chapter (Murray-Ramirez is a gay man, but uses the female pronoun when she's in drag). She described the court system as "the gay Shriners or Elks of the Americas."

"We wear gowns and crowns, they have their little cars and their hats," she said. "But we all do the same thing, and that is we raise money for charity, nonprofits and causes."

The San Diego court has raised $90,000 since its last coronation, Murray-Ramirez said. The court puts on an annual Easter egg hunt for children and participates in Toys for Tots. Murray-Ramirez recalled the court's early years in 1975 when their gifts were unwelcome.

"We were all gathered to give the toys, and they were supposed to come (pick them up)," she said. "Then we got a phone call, and they said, 'We didn't realize you were a homosexual organization. We will not accept toys from homosexuals.'"

Many organizations supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are bracing for a fight under the new administration of President Donald Trump. Murray-Ramirez said the Imperial Court is establishing a new civil rights wing, and members of courts across the country participated in the women's marches the day after the inauguration.

"Of course we're worried about this Supreme Court justice. We're worried about the people around (Trump) and the new heads of his cabinet," she said. "That being said, there's always going to be a need for fundraising. But I'm so proud our court system has seen that these times call for even more of an organized action."

The 45th coronation of the Imperial Court de San Diego takes place Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Handlery Hotel in Mission Valley.

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