"United we stand, divided they catch us one by one" - Jose Sarria
50 Years of Fabulous recounts the rich history of the Imperial Council, one of the oldest and most influential LGBT organizations in the world, from its genesis as a critical public space for the community and capacity building of LGBT San Franciscans, to its vital role in the advocacy for LGBT human rights; the film documents the full scope of the organization’s historical evolution up to its contemporary struggle in finding relevance, both in the wake of social progress it has helped foster, and in light of a newly empowered political coalition committed to rolling back a half-century of civil rights achievements.
Executive Producer / David Lassman
Director / Jethro Patalinghug
Producer / Marc Smolowitz
Producer/ Donna Sachet
The Imperial Council emerged in 1960s San Francisco against the backdrop of institutionalized vitriol towards the LGBT community. With no anti-discrimination protections for LGBT citizens, police extortion of gay friendly bar owners was rampant, and mass arrests of LGBT bar patrons coupled with the publishing of their names in newspapers was routine. At the time, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, leaving LGBT individuals subject to committal to a psychiatric institution for electric shock treatment.
In 1961, frustrated by this escalating harassment, community leader and drag performer José Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, as the first ever openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. Despite losing, Sarria garnered nearly 6,000 votes, motivating him to build on this emerging base of LGBT political capital by founding the Imperial Council. Created as a volunteer operated social club in 1965, the Council operated under the banner of the Tavern Guild, the first ever gay business association in the country, and began hosting events typically featuring drag performances at gay friendly bars throughout the city. Over time a hierarchy formed, the pinnacle of which was the annual crowning of an “Emperor” and “Empress,” two people charged with organizational stewardship and fundraising for a yearlong term. The Council played urgent dual roles in the city, providing critical refuge for the LGBT community, and raising funds for pressing community work.
As the religious right pushed for homophobic policy to thwart early 1970s LGBT legislative gains, an LGBT activist movement grew in San Francisco. The Council played a pivotal role in the movement’s sustainability, fundraising for its various campaigns and organizations. Furthermore, as the Reagan administration ignored the AIDS epidemic devastating the LGBT community in the 1980s, the Council again played an essential role, donating over $100,000 annually in fundraising proceeds to AIDS organizations. In addition, Emperors and Empresses of Council chapters in various cities founded direct service AIDS organizations, further filling the chasm left by government inaction.
Following a half-century of LGBT progress, the Imperial Council finds itself at a crossroads. During various historical flash points, the Council’s role was self-evident, providing support for advocacy efforts and an inclusive space for LGBT identity expression. Much work remains, but many galvanizing LGBT justice fights have been resolved and advocacy efforts mainstreamed. In this environment, maintaining the volunteer run organization, replete with the bureaucracy of most fifty-year old organizations, has proven to be difficult.
Despite significant LGBT gains, the Imperial Council has not outlived its usefulness. Locally, intensifying economic stratification disproportionately impacts the LGBT community, with 30% of San Francisco’s homeless population identifying as such. Nationally, the election of Donald Trump, his subsequent appointment of anti-LGBT cabinet members and the specter of new Supreme Court Justices undoing marriage equality, leaves decades of civil rights progress under threat. In this climate, the Council has an imperative role to play, providing support to the LGBT community as it bears the brunt of a city and country becoming increasingly inhospitable to its needs.
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