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July 1997

Emperor of Courage and Survival, Tom De

Most people know that New York has a mayor (Rudolph Giuliani), and a governor (George Pataki), but an emperor? If you are savvy about drag, you are probably familiar with the Imperial Court of New York. If you attend the Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade in New York City, there is no way you can miss the glamour queens on the Court's float. The queens (in particular, the Empress) usually command all of the press attention, so it's time the male royalty received some. Tom De Conza talks about his reign as Emperor VII Tomas, Emperor of Courage and Survival of the Imperial Court of New York and being HIV-positive.

BODY POSITIVE: Let's begin with some background information about The Imperial Court of New York to clear up the mystique for people who are not familiar with it. When did it begin? What is its purpose?

TOM DE CONZA: Primarily, the Imperial Court is a 501(C)3 AIDS fundraising organization that started 12 years ago, and it is part of the International Court System, which now has 63 chapters in the United States, Canada and Mexico. The primary goal, when it was started by Jose Saria 32 years ago in San Francisco, was to raise funds for politicians running for office that were "out" in the community. When the AIDS epidemic began, they switched their fundraising focus to AIDS organizations.

BP: What attracted you to the Court?

TDC: Primarily, the fact that the Court raised funds for AIDS organizations. When I heard about the Night of a Thousand Gowns, my domestic partner Wolfgang and I decided to attend. Charles Ching encouraged us to become volunteers. We volunteered for two years with the Court before we joined because I always thought it was, primarily, a "drag" organization. During the two years that we volunteered for The Night of a Thousand Gowns, their annual fundraiser and coronation ball, I realized that there were a lot more "male-dressing" Court members than I had thought. There were a few members of the Court in my bowling league for which I was president for seven years, and they encouraged me to become involved by saying, "There are a lot of men in the Court. Join, you're active." So I joined, and I started getting involved because what they were doing for the community was well worth while. I don't place my effort and energies in areas that are not of value.

BP: Who are the members of the Court? What does a person have to do to run for Emperor or any other royalty position?

TDC: You come into the Court as a lord or a lady, and when you create or work fundraisers, you receive an elevation to a new position. It's a series of steps. There's a Lord and Baron, and then there's a Viscount and Count, and then we go to Duke and Grand Duke. You work your way up. The highest Court positions are Prince and Princess Royale. Then, if you choose, you can run for Emperor. You submit an application for a position and go before a board who asks you questions. If they choose to accept your application, then you can run for the position. Positions are elected by the membership, including the Emperor and Empress. Friends of mine in the court convinced me to run. There was one other member running for Emperor and three running for Empress.

BP: What makes a person a good candidate?

TDC: Basically, candidacy is based on what you've done for the court -- how much you've been involved, money that you've raised, your attendance at meetings and other things that you've done on their behalf. You have to be an active member.

BP: Do you have a fundraising background? In what Court fundraising activities have you been involved?

TDC: Yes. I did two theater night fundraisers in coordination with the Bowling League. The first year that I joined the Court, I was co-chair of the raffle committee and it was very successful. We raised $2,300 dollars. They put me in charge of the second year, and we raised $4,700 dollars. This year, with my co-chair, Gene Rogers, we raised a little over $6,000 dollars. We raffled donations from the businesses in the area -- restaurants, jewelry stores. They give gift certificates and we give them aknowledgement in our journal.

BP: Is there a fee to join? How many members are there in your chapter?

TDC: There's a $30 annual membership. Right now, we have 118 members in the New York Court.

BP: Do HIV organizations benefit from your fundraisers, and if so, which ones?

TDC: For the Night of a Thousand Gowns, we select, generally, two primary beneficiaries -- a direct services AIDS organization and a social/educational one. This past year, we selected AmFAR's AIDS Services Directory for the funds we raised. The directory is published approximately twice a year to provide medical information to people with AIDS -- where to find clinical trials, where to get necessary medical help, how to get discounts on medications, and other kinds of treatment-oriented information that is useful. The second organization we picked as a beneficiary was the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, specifically for their building campaign. They have been so helpful to the community at large.

We also have various smaller fundraisers during the week prior to the Ball. We selected Momentum as a beneficiary. Momentum is an agency that provides free lunches in the five boroughs. They have a family-style lunch, and they give enough food to the individual to take home for nine additional meals. Momentum has a central home center where people can get food and clothing, but people can get served meals at any of the other centers during the week.

BP: Since the Night of a Thousand Gowns is your big fundraising event, can you elaborate about what exactly happens there. It's a ball, right?

TDC: Yes, it's a charity coronation ball. We usually begin with an opening number that is choreographed by one of our talented members, our dowager Empress, Randee. It's usually a number from a Broadway show. Following the big number, we have dinner, and have presentations from Courts from around the country. Court members come from states as far as Alaska to the New York charity ball. We have a very good reputation for putting on a great evening. This year we raised about $60,000, and it was distributed among various organizations.

BP: How much does it cost and when is it held?

TDC: Well, this year it cost $125 with dinner and a dessert buffet included in the price. This year it was held on March 22nd. Next year it will be held on March 28th.

BP: What do people wear to it?

TDC: It's a black tie affair. Some of the men wear military- style outfits. The "real" women in the Court come dressed in tuxedos. The drag members wear long gowns. It's extremely festive. I think we had 760 people attending our ball this year.

BP: I understand that this was your coronation.

TDC: Yes. Next year it will be our ball -- mine and Gianna's. It's a celebration of what we've done over the year, and at the end of the evening, the new Emperor and Empress are coronated.

BP: Who is the Empress this year, and what is your relationship with her?

TDC: The Empress is Gianna, and our relationship is very good. Sometimes I have difficulty remembering to call him Gianna, I always call him Johnny. I have to catch myself in public. We both had heard of each other but officially first met last summer in Fire Island and became friends. We would discuss what we felt the goals of the Court to be and where best to direct our energies. We're very similar. We both decided the things that we wanted to do for the Court -- things like create more exposure for it and try to get more sponsorship which I think is very important.

BP: What kind of sponsors do you have now?

TDC: Right now, we don't have any official sponsors. We try to involve various people, small and large organizations. I think that some corporations may also be ready to provide sponsorship. Securing a location for the Ball can be difficult, though. We're limited as to where we can hold our functions because of cost and space requirements. Not many places can seat 800 people for dinner. We have people that come in from out of town, so we try to select a hotel that can meet our needs. People will change clothes during the evening. They'll come down to the cocktail reception that is held prior to dinner where everyone socializes, and many of them will want to change before being presented to the reigning Emperor or Empress.

BP: Do you run into prejudice or similar problems when trying to arrange for your event because of the gay and drag focus?

TDC: Now, fortunately, no. I'm sure that there were problems in the beginning, though, because I experienced problems when I got involved with the bowling leagues. We told the bowling alley up front that we were a gay and lesbian league. We didn't want any problems with the management or help, so we were open and honest about who we were and we have a very good agreement with the bowling alley that we use. It is Bowlmor Lanes and we've bowled there for many years. There were problems getting sanction from the American Bowling Congress because of our sexual orientation. I've always been an activist, thought not very militant. I came out to my family in 1961 when I was 16 years old.

BP: Where did you grow up?

TDC: I grew up in Queens in Whitestone. I've lived my life in a way that I felt comfortable. I'm a hairdresser who has been out to my clients since I was 19 years old. My clients are like family to me. When I had my 40th birthday party, they were there. When I had my 50th birthday party, they were there. When my lover Wolfgang and I had our commitment ceremony, people sent gifts. I have a family composed of three generations of customers.

BP: Let's get back to your role as Emperor of the Imperial Court. What do you plan to accomplish during your reign?

TDC: Number one, I'd like to publicize the fact that there are male-dressing members of the Court. I think it's importantto let people know that our membership is continually growing and includes drag queens, women in male-drag, cross dressers, transgender people and men like myself, who dress as men. Originally, the group was all drag queens and had eight members. It was founded by Coco LaChine, a.k.a Charles Ching, the president of the Court, who has been very active in the community. The first ball was held at the Waldorf Astoria, and it was such a success that they've done it year after year. Another important goal for me is to let people out there know that you can have AIDS and survive -- be a long-term survivor -- and that you can have a healthy relationship with an HIV-negative person. My relationship with Wolfgang is seven years old, and he's still negative. You can have a good life together, both emotionally and sexually.

I want people to see that you can live a very healthy life. When I received my HIV-positive diagnosis in 1982, the doctor said to me, "Tom, I don't want you to go home and say, 'why me, why me?' but this is it." It was difficult when I was first diagnosed, because there was nothing available.

BP: What is your treatment now?

TDC: I'm on the "cocktail," taking Ritonavir, ddI, and 3TC.

BP: Is it difficult for you to adhere to the treatment schedule?

TDC: It's very difficult. Since we do have a busy social life, it can be difficult, but adhering to the schedule is definitely one of the reasons I have survived.

BP: Have you experienced any side effects?

TDC: There are side effects involved. The typical side effects I experience are nausea, headaches, occasional vomiting, and diarrhea -- pretty typical.

BP: How has being positive changed your life, especially as a long-term survivor? Have your perceptions, dreams, or goals changed?

TDC: I'm more grateful, and look at things a little bit differently. I need to say, though, that when I was diagnosed, it really did not devastate me. I felt I was strong enough emotionally to deal with it. I have a very good support system, people around. Immediately, I began to get more involved in the community. I started volunteering, went to whatever fundraisers were around and offered my help. Since I'm a haircutter, I did haircuts for people who are homebound and in hospitals.

It's important that people not be terrified when they get their HIV status diagnosis. There are so many treatment options available now. I think people have to take control of their lives. They have to know what services and treatments are available to them. They have to talk to the doctor, and get a good understanding of the meaning of all their results; they must take an active part in their medical care. These things are all very important. Also, no one should have to hide their HIV status. I'm sure there are people who do, but support is very important. If you hide, you are denying support you could be receiving from family, friends, and other loved ones.

BP: I understand that Body Positive is one of the HIV organizations with which the Court has a relationship.

TDC: Body Positive was one of our beneficiaries in the past. We have members in the Court that are affiliated with Body Positive. Personally, I've just become familiar with you during the past couple of years.

BP: Not everyone in the Court is HIV-positive, correct? The only requirement for membership is a willingness to serve or help?

TDC: Right. Members either have friends, lovers, or other loved ones who are HIV-positive. These days, it's rare for people not to know of someone who has died of AIDS who is HIV-positive. The Court is composed of a lot of good people who want to raise money and enjoy themselves. :

If you would like to receive more information about how to become involved with the Imperial Court, contact Tom De Conza at (212) 929-6478.


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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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