As my friend and San Francisco host Doug announced at band practice on Tuesday, we made the obituary section of the Chronicle and we're not even dead. The paper published an article recounting the events of the previous Sunday, when the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band led the 31st annual procession to the gravesite of the Emperor Joshua Norton, with me on bass drum. This event is orchestrated by Jose Sarria who, in 1965, realized he was the widow of the Emporer Norton and proclaimed himself the Widow Norton Empress Jose, Norton I. The Widow Norton is now 80 years old, and this may be the last time she organizes this (although she has apparently made that threat before).
The first speaker at the ceremony noted that we might wonder how the Empress Jose etc. could be the widow of a man who died nearly 100 years ago. Wouldn't that make her 170 years old? But, as the article in the paper explained, queens are not to be questioned.
The ceremony is actually part of a weekend long series of events during which the new members of San Francisco's Imperial Court are crowned. The Imperial Court was started by Jose Sarria as a sort of civic organization of drag queens. There are now Imperial Courts around the world, but this is claimed to be the first. Evidently the Widow Norton began the graveside event by pulling the drag queens out of bed early in the morning and bussing them down to the graveyard in Colma, 10 miles south of the city.
The drag queens emerged from the bus in funeral splendor, with fur coats and glorious outfits and hats. The Widow Norton herself wore a magnificently huge leg-of-mutton sleeved black flocked dress, reminiscent of that worn by the Red Queen, and a large elegant veil. All were in full makeup, or leather drag. I was amazed.
The ceremony included speeches and musical performances and a wonderful knife-twirling performance by a drag queen from New York named Penny Candy. The Freedom Band played "My Boyfriend's Back" and "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue" in peppy marching arrangements. We also sang "Silent Night" when the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Chorus failed to show up. ("They are so on my shit list," announced the Widow Norton, and not one of us thought this an idle comment.)
The locals are fond of pointing out "only in San Francisco" events. In this case I think they have the authority to do so. To be out early on a February morning, in full band uniform, participating in an elaborate ritual so absurd it could only be done with complete sobriety and an uncrackingly straight face, this is something I could only back into accidentally. To me, it was one of those "what life roads brought me here" moments. Such moments always cause me to break out into uncontrollable laughter.
In fact, there was one moment in the morning when I did fall into hysterical laughter. San Francisco singer Gail Wilson was performing a special version of "I Feel Pretty", about the event itself and its participants. When she referred to how pretty all the drag queens in attendance were with the line "I hardly can believe it's real" I lost it. It was layer upon layer upon layer of artifice and irony, titrated into one pinpoint-fine moment.
I threw back my head and laughed and laughed and laughed until tears came to my eyes. But it was a respectful laughter for sure.