3 min

Empress Ball honours ted northe and celebrates a new reign

Queens and courtiers gathered at Vancouver Art Gallery to pay tribute

Empress of Canada II Avaughna Sanoir is crowned by her consort Bruce Sanoir, June 14 at the Empress Ball. Credit: James Loewen

It was the night of a thousand drag queens. Well, maybe not a thousand. That would be too frightening. Let’s round it down to about 100.

On Saturday, June 14, a throng of title holders and their courtiers, nearly 200 in all, partied beneath the dome of the Vancouver Art Gallery rotunda, the former courthouse. They came to honour the memory of ted northe and to celebrate the coronation of his successor, Empress of Canada II Avaughna Sanoir, in a gala evening produced by Q Hall of Fame founder Paul Therien.

There was rich symbolism in the venue and in the group photos taken on the Georgia Street steps. It was there in 1958 that a young northe stood in full drag and proclaimed to the city that “we” were human and would not be denied our rights. Thus did northe launch a lifetime of gay rights leadership, leaving many legacies, including the Canadian Empress Courts, with empresses reigning from Victoria to Halifax. That and the Empress of Canada Foundation will be his lasting memorial.

Our beginnings were well represented at the June 14 Empress Ball by Empress I Charity, who still makes a scene-stealing entrance; Empress II Mona Regina Lee, who opened the coronation rites; Empress X Oliv, who, as is her wont, made a fabulous entrance, stayed exactly as long she wanted, then vanished.

We paid court to empresses XIII Easter, XXI Imelda Mae, XXVII Adrien, XXXIV Vivian and XXXV Jaylene. Of emperors, there were XXIV Crema, XXIX Bruce, XXXIII Buster Cherry, XXXV Glen and XXXVI Mike.

Other dignitaries included Empress of Surrey Erica St-Asia Divine; Della Devine and Celestial Seasons, who have both held the title of Ms Gay Vancouver; Calgary’s anti-bullying activist MZ Rhonda; 1990s stage diva Stefanie Blaze; and the Queen of East Van, Isolde N Barron. Other must-mentions were Avaughna’s consort Bruce Sanoir, who crowned the new empress; northe’s sister and nephew Katie and Derek England; former BJ’s star John Taylor; Marilyn Moss (the former male stripper agent Marilyn O); Rose Rowell; stately Nina Tron of Calgary; and Little Sister’s manager Janine Fuller. And on and on!

I’ve had to leave out so many, and I will pay dearly for it!

We were certainly entertained. Conni Smudge, co-MCing with Barb Snelgrove, showed an amazing energy on the floor (standing, sitting and kneeling!) that took me back to the ’70s drag antics of Dee Dee Ambrose and Bobbie Callicoatte. Eighty-year-old Bill Munroe contributed three fast-stepping numbers, reminding us that 40 is fabulous the second time around and demonstrating some high-kicks that would have rivalled Charity’s in her heyday. Two beautiful female vocalists, NiQ and Shannon McKillop, added their gifts to the evening.

NiQ’s rendition of “Goldfinger” was the filthiest fun — let’s just say there was a dildo involved.

Always important to northe was his relationship with the two-spirit community. He would have been proud to see the evening’s proceedings open with a procession of First Nations drummers led by Chief Silver Coyote Al (Chad Xix) Houston. Later in the evening, when Chief Al and the elders presented our new empress with a ceremonial drum and blanket, Avaughna assured him that the drum would be “heard loud and proud” throughout her reign. And just imagine the spectacle of two-spirit elders and youths, drag queens and kings, and courtly retainers joining hands in a traditional circle dance amidst the colonial splendour of the old courthouse.  

Out in Schools coordinator Jen Sung remarked at a recent gathering that we spend a lot of time in our community “calling each other out” about one perceived offence or another. Sung encouraged us to instead hold events that “call each other in” to help heal old wounds and create the bonds that will help us stop repeating the mistakes of the past. 

That describes the proper work of the drag courts. To entertain, to uplift, to amuse, to bewilder at times, and to always be there when the need is greatest to shake their booties and pass the hat to support the cause.

Empress Avaughna has promised to make her reign, her court and the Empress of Canada Foundation just that sort of “calling each other in.” There is work to be done, and we have a new generation willing and ready to do it. Shall we join them?