By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Who reigns over Oregon like a sovereign? What was, and is, the most fabulous fraternity in all the land? Oregon’s oldest LGBTQ organization, and one that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity over the last five decades: the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon. To understand the history of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon, it is important to understand the history and context of fraternal organizations and queer rights in Oregon. From its inception, fraternal orders and secret societies were intrinsic to the American character. As the nation’s identity formed, fraternal organizations and brotherhoods were fundamental to individual and group identity; an enormous cross section of Americans participated in groups such as the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Eagles, B’nai B’rith, and PEO.
Along with these positive organizations, hate-oriented brotherhoods such as the Ku Klux Klan swelled in membership. The overwhelming success of such organizations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was due in large part to their ability to serve as job networks, stag clubs for entertainment and drink, and one of the only sources at the time for medical and life insurance policies.
Furthermore, they served as a source of social identity and pride; a walk in Portland’s Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery, for example, reveals that a huge percentage of people buried there felt their identity as a Mason or a Woodman to be so important as to dictate what would appear on their headstone. It was in this fertile ground that the organization that would eventually find identity as the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon would be born. Founded in 1958, the Court was founded initially by a man named Sam Campbell as the Court of Transylvania. Campbell named himself Queen Samuel I, the Court’s first Monach.
Due to social disputes and low membership — and despite Queen Samuel I stepping down as Queen the year after founding the organization — the original Court of Transylvania faltered and dissipated in 1959. In 1965, however, the Pruitts of Portland founded a new Court. From 1965 until 1971, the Pruitts held semi-annual balls; at each of these balls, a Queen was crowned, with her life and achievements celebrated in the style of the then-popular television show ‘Queen for a Day.’ Parallel to this, another “Rose Court Queen” was commonly identified in Portland. Starting in 1907 with Queen Flora, the city of Portland would regularly crown a “Rose Court Queen” as part of the annual Rose Festival. In 1930, the city began selecting the Queen from area high schools; during this time, the city began to select a “royal court” of “princesses,” with one “princess” being crowned “queen” each year.
In what could be considered a spoof on this local tradition, a female impersonator named Rose was crowned Queen at the Pruitt’s Spring Ball in 1965. She proclaimed that she had been Rose Queen I and II prior to 1965; as such, she became known as Rose Queen III. In 1969, the Portland Forum — an early LGBTQ rights organization — took over the sponsorship of the balls; the following year, the organization formed a partnership with José Sarria, a political activist in San Francisco who had founded a similarly-structured social group in the Bay Area in 1965. With this partnership, the International Rose Court was founded — and the local organization adopted the name of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon. To conform to Sarria’s preestablished titles, the office of “queen” was renamed to “Empress,” and shortly thereafter became a publicly-elected office voted upon by the public.
By the late 1970s, the ISRC’s membership had exploded, and its events were some of the most successful in the LGBTQ community. The crowning of an Emperor in 1975 further expanded the size of the Court and their ambition in fundraising and outreach; events and private fundraising went to support a huge array of organizations and causes including early queer rights activism, care for the homeless, and scholarship funds. The Emperor and Empress began a busy schedule of travel to attend events sponsored by Courts which were springing up all over the nation; to hold down the local front, new titles such as Prince, Princess, White Knight, and Debutante were created to assist the Emperor and Empress in the leadership and work of the ISRC.
The Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon has seen a sharp decline in membership in recent times. However, this is true of virtually every fraternal organization — it is commonly held that most such organizations reached their organizations’ peaks around 1950. Furthermore, studied cited in such popular texts as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone indicate that a variety of social factors have dramatically shrunk the membership size of most fraternal organizations, religious denominations, service clubs, and even community organizations such as the Parent-Teacher Association. In this regard, the Rose Court’s reduction in size is natural, and perhaps even unavoidable.
However, despite the changes and trends in society, the Rose Court is still going strong. Open to all persons over the age of 21 who live within Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas and Columbia Counties, The ISRC is firmly against discrimination and constantly welcomes new members of all ages. Virtually each week, the Court holds functions open to the public, introducing both community veterans and those new to Oregon to the wonders of queer community. In October of 2015, the Court will even bring together members of the International Court System from all over the world to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary with a Golden Jubilee State Dinner honoring their history and journey as a community.
Many things have changed since 1958, for LGBTQ individuals and for society alike. However, for those who count themselves amongst its members, the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court has remained a rock to stand on and a haven to rest within.
For more information on the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court, its numerous events and meetings happening each week, and how you can become a member, visit RoseCourt.org. For information and tickets on the Golden Jubilee State Dinner, visit ICS50.org.