Legendary San Francisco drag queen, activist, philanthropist, and mother hen Juanita MORE! is ready to try on a new role in the city: Empress.
After a long year without parties and only a few occasions to even get in drag — most of them virtual — Ms. MORE! wants to lend her notoriety and fundraising prowess to the oldest LGTBQ+ nonprofit in the country and possibly the world, the Imperial Council of San Francisco. The founding "mother court" of what's now an international organization, the Imperial Council began as a kind of joke — in which local drag queen and activist Jose Sarria declared himself Empress I, The Widow Norton (a reference to 19th Century San Francisco kook Emperor Norton).
Founded in 1965, the Imperial Council's founding story is told in the 2018 documentary 50 Years of Fabulous, and the group continues in its fundraising and charitable work. And Juanita MORE!, who has run in circles somewhat apart from the Imperial Court during her four decades in San Francisco, now wants to be its Empress LVI — the reigning Empress LV, Mimi Osa, will pass on the crown in a virtual coronation ceremony on April 24. Also, MORE!'s longtime friend and stylist Mr. David Glamamore is running for Emperor.
Voting occurs on Saturday, April 17, at three locations: The Cinch on Polk Street (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), Castro Muni Station (noon to 6 p.m.), and The Powerhouse in SoMa (1 p.m. to 5 p.m.) — and Juanita says that Supervisor Aaron Peskin and Supervisor Matt Haney have promised to come cast the first ballots at the Cinch and Powerhouse respectively.
Below, a pre-election conversation SFist had with Juanita this week.
SFist: Tell me about your pandemic year — what have you been up to besides cooking a lot?
Juanita: It's been a long year. And of course one of the things I miss is having dinner parties. For me, to entertain at home — I cook so much, I cook every day as part of my artistic release, as well — having people over, it's just a combination of all the things moms do. I think I miss that the most. Of course I've had moments of all the other things, of depression, of anger, of frustration — you know all the other things that are attached to [the pandemic]. The trauma of it still exists. As exciting as it is that San Francisco is doing so great and we're opening up, there's still trauma that's attached to that. I haven't been shy about asking people how they're feeling, and there are still a lot of people who are like, 'I'm still afraid! I still want to wear my mask!' It's still there.
Oh yeah, I think that sort of tension is going to last at least through the end of the year, people not being totally comfortable in public spaces. But then again, give them some booze and they may get comfortable again pretty quick.
There are people who are fully ready in all sorts of ways, and I applaud them. I'm gonna get there!
What else have you been up to? I know you've been doing the Art Mart.
Yes, I've been doing the Noe Art Mart — Chris Hastings from The Lookout asked me to be a part of it. I was super excited to be a part of it, especially at the beginning, because that first time I did it was the first time that I'd seen a lot of people in over a year. It was emotional for a lot of people. I saw tears in people's eyes as they were talking to me — and that could be tears of happiness or tears of fear, I do not know. [laughs] It felt great, and it felt like something new was going to happen. Also, that space is giving artists — I've always been such a champion of local artists — to see some of them be able to sell stuff that they're creating when they've had no other outlet to sell their work. It's great. There are people selling stuff there who have never sold their work before, or who have never met the people who they consider their customers. They've sold stuff online, but they've never met any of the people.
What was your first exposure to the Imperial Court of San Francisco?
That goes so far back. That goes back to when I first moved to San Francisco in the early 80s. I moved to the Castro from Nob Hill in 1983, so I was living in the Castro at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, right smack dab there at the corner of Beaver and Noe, until 1987. One of my roommates had moved to New York, and I had visited him there about twice a year. And in 1987 I started thinking about making the leap and moving there myself — you have to understand I'm a Bay Area native, grew up in the East Bay and came out as a teenager, so me making a decision to move to New York was really like me really leaving the nest. But I also in '87 had a feeling that if I moved to New York I was going to get away from the AIDS epidemic and the darkness that was around me 24/7 where I was living.
Of course that wasn't true. I moved to New York and I landed in the West Village, one block away from Christopher Street and one block away from the West Side Highway, so I landed right smack dab in the middle of it again. But it was around that time that the Court started to really reach their peak of what their goals were — which was raising money, and at that point it was raising money for people who were HIV positive and had AIDS who needed their rent paid. That was the peak of their triumph to me. I remember first hearing about them at that point.
Perhaps you can explain for those who don't know what the Imperial Court is and how it came to be.
The Imperial Council started with Jose Sarria, who was a trailblazer and a pioneer in doing one thing that I think stands out the most out of everything he did throughout his life: He understood how to bring community together. That is something that I have done and continue to do.
In the late 1950s, when Jose came back to the city from the service, it was illegal to be gay or lesbian. You could get arrested or you could get a lobotomy — it was that easy. Jose Sarria started to fight for the right for gay people to exist as themselves, and to gather together in this city, and he created community. That was really the start of it, and the heart of what Jose's vision was. There were of course events like the Beaux Arts Ball — my hairdresser and others have told me about this — and because they happened on Halloween, people were allowed to be out in drag or in costume until midnight without getting arrested. [Ed. Note: The Beaux Arts Ball was an annual event thrown by the SF gay bar association The Tavern Guild, and it became the locus of a seminal protest on Halloween 1969 with hundreds of non-attendees protesting the idea that cross-dressing was only allowed one day a year.]
The Beaux Arts Ball decided on one of their nights [in 1965] to crown Jose queen of the ball, in recognition of all of his work in the community. And he said, "I'm already a queen. I'm now going to be your Empress." From there he started to create the foundation for the Imperial Council. We are the Mother Court here in San Francisco, and there are courts now around the world, and millions of dollars have been raised.
Did you personally know Jose Sarria well?
No. I got to know Jose in 2005 when he was honored by SF Pride with the Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award, and that year I was a Community Grand Marshal. Meeting him for the first time, it was definitely as though I was meeting royalty. He sat there like that. He demanded that respect, and I was all for it. He really did look at me from head to toe, and I was sort of in awe. I loved him looking me up and down — because it wasn't just to check out my outfit. He was looking a little deeper, if you know what I mean.
How long have you been thinking about running for Empress?
I can't say that I've always thought about running for Empress, but I can say that I've been asked to run for Empress a few times. It wasn't until last year when I watched 50 Years of Fabulous that I started to think 'It's time.' The film shows the beginnings of the Imperial Council, its peak in the 80s, and its slow decline, and it left me feeling at the end: We can't lose this. After 55+ years, it's the LGBTQ nonprofit in the world, and that's a big deal. It's a big piece of LGBTQ history and I'm all about preserving and maintaining that queer history. I just felt like it's my time to do this and I have a lot of followers and a lot family here, and a lot of friends, and I thought maybe I can shine a brighter light on this organization and maybe keep it going a little longer.
What has the organization been up to recently?
The organization is still doing what its goals were at the beginning — they're still raising money and distributing it back into the community. It's a very similar model to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Looking at how I've always gotten things done in this city, the Court and I work in different ways. I am super forward-thinking, I'm a doer, and I get things done and I have a great team of people who help me do it. I'm hoping to bring some of that energy into the Court system. It's time to push them into an exciting new direction.
I've also heard from the LGBTQ Asylum Project, and the Court has been great supporters of that organization. But the part that has been missing for me is the loudspeaker — you don't hear about the Court's work outside of very small circles, so that's what I think I can bring to the organization. Help get the word out.
Why do you think the San Francisco drag scene has largely been sort of a separate world from the Imperial Court in recent decades?
I think that the San Francisco drag scene in general has always had a lot of separate pieces to it. It's never been just one thing, it's broken off into a lot of things. It always has been like that and it's one of the things that makes San Francisco drag so interesting, and diverse, and way more creative. That's a great thing to me.
What do you hope to do during your reign and will there be bake sales?
I guess there's going to have to be, huh? If I'm elected and I get in there, I want to look back at some of the super creative, brilliant ideas of past empresses and maybe revive some of that. Like the queen who rode down Polk Street on an elephant! [Ed. Note: That was Empress X Doris, who rode an elephant in San Francisco's Pride Parade down Polk Street in 1975.] It could be really fun!
Related: Pioneering Gay Activist Jose Sarria Dies At Age 90