Robert Taylor is a big man. He's nearly bald but sports a tidy white goatee. A tattoo on his right forearm reads, "Carpe diem." On a recent Sunday afternoon the 47-year-old Montana native and U.S. Navy veteran acknowledges that he might not fit the typical description of a drag queen.
"I may not be the prettiest drag queen in the world," Taylor says. "But I'm not the ugliest by far."
After performing for two decades in Montana and Las Vegas, Taylor has earned the right to brag. He paid his dues learning how to walk in high heels, apply eyeliner and making other painstakingand painfulperformance preparations. "There's shaving that's involved, which is terrible," he says. "I hate to shave."
On stage, Taylor transforms into a larger-than-life woman named "Angelique LaRose DeLa Luna Kennady Smith." During next month's Imperial Sovereign Court Coronation in Missoula, LaRose DeLa Luna Kennady Smith aspires to be elected empress. The title brings not only bragging rights as the state's highest ranking drag queen, but also the responsibility of representing the state's LGBT community at home and in neighboring states. That honor would make Taylor the face of an organization with deep philanthropic roots that stretch far beyond the stage.
DeLa Luna Kennady Smith isn't nervous about winning the title. For one, she appears to be running unopposed. She also has a strong platform for her candidacy. In addition to furthering the court's charitable endeavors, she aims to bridge what she sees as a divide between the state's gay and lesbian populations. "I think we should all be on a united front," she says.
While the court presents itself as a monarchy, overseen by an emperor and empress who are assisted by a prince and princess, it's governed by a board of directors. The board is charged with promoting the monarchy by hosting shows, as well as choosing which local organizations and causes to lend its colorful support.
The Imperial Court's history dates back to 1965, when Jose Julio Sarria, a World War II veteran and an irrepressible drag queen, proclaimed herself Empress of the Imperial Court de San Francisco. Empress I Jose, or the "Widow Norton," as she's called, dedicated the court to performing good deeds. While many rightfully think of drag shows as filled with bawdy humor and hyper-sexual parodies, the Imperial Sovereign Court's mission goes far deeper. Internationally, it has demonstrated a commitment to donating proceeds generated from drag shows to community-minded organizations, such as those that conduct HIV-prevention efforts, promote anti-hate crime education and work to mobilize the LGBT vote. Today, the Imperial Sovereign Court engages in such efforts in more than 65 communities across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
In Montana, Board President John "Equality" Blake says the court funds scholarships that assist LGBT students and pro-equality allies. It also assists organizations including the Missoula Food Bank, Blue Mountain Clinic and the National Coalition Building Institute with cash donations.
Blake, a 27-year-old University of Montana student earning a bachelor's in public administration, notes that the court's work is sincere, as well as strategic.
"An essential foundation of our mission ... is to, in plain language, communicate that LGBT folks care about the same things as everyone else," he says. "We care about education. We care about families. We care about feeding the homeless."
Among the community contributions that Blake and Taylor are most proud of are court scholarships, awards of $500 or more granted annually. Blake notes that since the court launched the scholarship program in 2006, it has assisted at least two individuals who went on to complete medical school.
Last year, the court awarded 22-year-old Dustin Satterfield of Roundup $500. "I used the scholarship to complete my last year of school," says Satterfield, who graduated last fall with a bachelor's in sociology and women and gender studies. She plans on returning to UM this month to begin a master's degree in sociology.
Satterfield learned about the scholarship while performing with the court as a diminutive drag king named "Leon Bones." She appreciates the assistance and is pleased that her performances are contributing to the court's ongoing philanthropic efforts.
"I don't think of it as volunteering," she says. "I just think of it as going out to a show and having a good time ... You're raising money just by performing. You're getting more tips, and that's more money they can put back into the community, so (court members) can keep doing what they do."
The Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana will select its Ms. Gay Big Sky West title holder, a role considered a stepping stone toward becoming royalty, at the Eagles Lodge in Kalispell on Aug. 10. That event precedes the Sept. 14 Coronation at Ruby's Inn in Missoula, where the court will elect next year's royalty. The public is invited to both events and Montana residents are permitted to cast votes in the elections.
As for Taylor, aka DeLa Luna Kennady Smith, he's just as interested in discussing his goals as empress as the particulars of his act on stage. At the top of his to-do list is growing the court's scholarship program and, in doing so, further encouraging education among LGBT youth. "The big thing is community and kids," Taylor says, before heading to a pre-Coronation interview with the court's board of directors. It goes to show the royal responsibilities start even before anyone is crowned.