The International Imperial Court System (IICS) is one of the oldest and largest predominantly gay organizations in the world. The court raises money for charity through large annual fancy-dress costume balls in cities throughout North America and numerous smaller fundraisers each year. Although no official numbers are available, media outlets including the Los Angeles Times have stated that the Imperial Court System is the second largest gay organization in the world, surpassed only by the LGBT outreach program of the Metropolitan Community Church.
The Imperial Court System was founded in San Francisco in 1965 by José Sarria, also known as Absolute Empress I, The Widow Norton. Sarria, now affectionately known as "Mama" or "Mama José" among Imperial Court members, devised the name "Widow Norton" as a reference to Joshua Norton, a much-celebrated citizen of 19th Century San Francisco who had declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico in 1859.
Sarria soon became the nexus of a fundraising group with volunteer members bearing titles of nobility bestowed by yearly elected leaders. In the United States, the first court outside of San Francisco was Portland, Oregon who joined with San Francisco in 1970 to start the International Court System, followed closely by Los Angeles. Other Imperial Courts were founded thereafter. Around 1971, this structure was replicated in Vancouver, Canada.These empires operated and formed policies more-or-less independently until an Imperial Court Council lead by Sarria was formed to prevent participation by groups that were not strictly and solely involved with charitable fundraising.
For many years certain chapters remained outside the recognition of the Widow Norton and the Imperial Court Council for various reasons, particularly groups in Canada loyal to Ted Northe, a founder of the Vancouver chapter who was known for some time as "Empress of Canada". Eventually these chapters reconciled their differences with Sarria's group and joined the IICS. In 1997, Northe was among the recipients of the "José Honors Award", a prestigious recognition granted by Sarria in a special ceremony held on that first year it was given in Boston, Massachusetts.
Infrequently, a schism within a court chapter has given rise to a rival chapter unrecognized by the others. Most of these so-called "rogue courts" or "rival courts" have collapsed and dissolved within a few years, although a rival court in Houston, Texas is currently extant.
Each individual court chapter (or "realm") is a separate, legally-incorporated charitable non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for various charities and people in need within its realm. Each chapter has its own board of directors and is financially responsible for its own management. In addition to local non-profit status, many courts in the United States have Federal 501(c) status.
The Imperial Court Council is a separately-incorporated non-profit organization created to advise individual chapters and, when necessary, to grant or rescind recognition by the IICS as a whole. This group also urges a degree of consistency regarding matters of protocol via proclamations which are generally observed by all chapters.
On 17 February 2007, Sarria (who turned 84 years old in December 2006) officially passed IICS leadership to Nicole the Great, (real name Nicole Murray-Ramirez), former 1st Heir Apparent, in a ceremony held in Seattle, Washington. 
Nicole the Great had been the de facto head of the IICS for several years and has been assisted in this capacity by Empress Coco LaChine, Emperor Rick Ford, Empress Milo, Empress Jack-E, Emperor Kevin Drake, Empress Panzi, Empress Remy other Imperial Court Council members. Nicole the Great created her own line of succession to replace those formerly so designated by Sarria. Like those monarchs in the former line of succession, these comprise the Imperial Court Council.
The court system has grown to over 70 court chapters in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Some realms cover entire states, such as Alaska, Hawaii or Iowa, while others cover cities, counties or regions, such as the city of Toronto, the communities of Alameda County, California or the Greater Niagara Region.
Most chapters are Imperial Courts and are also known as "empires". A few chapters are called "ducal court" (infrequently called a "duchy") or "barony" (infrequently called a "baronial court"). The term ducal court is typically used in the rare situation when one chapter's area overlaps with the territory of an already established chapter, as is the case with the Ducal Court of San Francisco. The term barony is typically used when a new chapter has yet to fully realize the level of infrastructure and successful fundraising characteristic of those chapters deemed full-fledged Imperial Courts. Except for the titles used by the monarchs (i.e. baroness rather than empress, etc.) baronial and ducal chapters function in essentially the same way as those chapters headed by emperor and empresses.
Indicative of the IICS's continued growth, in the past decade, two of North America's largest metropolitan areas -- Boston and Chicago—established baronies which have since become prominent and successful Imperial Courts.
As oldest chapter in the organization, the Imperial Court of San Francisco is considered the Mother Court of the Imperial Court System. The term "Mother Court" is also used for a court whose members establish a new court. For example, the Imperial Court of Rhode Island is the Mother Court of the Imperial Court of Massachusetts.
Each court holds an annual "coronation" (or "adornment" in the case of baronies and ducal courts) which is usually the chapter's largest fundraiser and is attended by both local people and members of other chapters from across North America. The evening culminates in the ceremony in which the new monarch or monarchs are crowned. The method by which monarchs are selected varies from chapter to chapter, ranging from selection by vote among the active membership in closed session months before the coronation to election by all in attendance on the night of the ceremony.
The office of monarch is taken very seriously within the court system and requires a large commitment of the holder's time and money. Accordingly, while the presence of an "imperial couple" is the norm, it is not uncommon for an emperor or empress to reign alone depending on the availability of suitably dedicated and charismatic candidates with the necessary resources to fulfil the requirements of a one year reign.
In the most frequent case, several weeks after coronation the new monarch or monarchs give out court titles at a fundraiser called investitures. The titles given to members vary from one chapter to another and are primarily left to the discretion of the reigning monarch or monarchs, the fons honorum (fountain of honor) of their chapter.
Typical titles awarded are Imperial Crown Prince, Grand Duchess, Marquess, Viscount, etc. Other appellations bestowed resemble offices or professions within a medieval or modern noble court rather than titles of nobility, such as "Court Jester" or "Chancellor of the Realm" and so forth. These titles may be as serious-sounding or as humorously campy as the monarchs wish.
Titles are traditionally based upon those used by European nobility (especially the British Peerage) but nothing prohibits the creation of titles such as czarina, raja or sultan and these are sometimes used as well.
Noble titles are ranked according to an order of precedence so that, for example, a member who has been created a duke takes precedence over a member who has been made countess. The main effect of this hierarchy involves the order that members are introduced during "protocol", a ceremonial procedure endemic to the Imperial Court in which titles are read by the master of ceremonies as members approach the presiding monarchs. This bit of pageantry, which is typically reserved for coronations and similar large events, gives Imperial Court members an opportunity to display their titles and costumes to the assembled crowd.
Monarchs, both reigning and former, are typically allowed to create various societies, clubs, houses, fraternities, sonorities and so forth. These are typically for the sole purpose of granting membership to people they wish to honor. Many of these have colorful names that are grandiose, humorous or both. Examples include the Bad Boy Club, the House of Ooga Booga, the Order of Blender Shots, the Order of the Far East, the Order of La Vaca Grande, etc. In some cases, membership is exclusive; in other cases, it is granted relatively indiscriminately. Unlike titles, these memberships are rarely if ever regulated by chapters' by-laws or boards of directors.
Similar to society memberships are "family titles". Monarchs often name people as brothers, uncles, and so forth. These are likewise typically unregulated within the system and may be granted as freely or as sparingly as a monarch wishes.
Due to the de-centralized nature of the organization and inconsistent record keeping in some chapters early in their histories, it is difficult to estimate the total amount of money raised by the IICS. Proceeds from the Imperial Court of New York City's renowned "Night of a Thousand Gowns" has resulted in $67,000 of donations for its charitable recipients in a single weekend. Since its inception, the Imperial Court de San Diego has raised at least $25 million.
Each court conducts numerous fundraisers throughout the year. Drag shows, raging in size from performances at local bars to events in hotel ballrooms and other large venues, are the main way in which revenue is raised for charity. Especially in recent years, court chapters have diversified their fundraising strategies so as to include yard sales, gift raffles, etc. Court members also solicit donations at LGBT events, gay pride parades and other public events at which they appear.
Imperial Court chapters donate the funds raised to a variety of causes including those related to AIDS, breast cancer, domestic abuse, and homelessness. Empires have also established or contributed to a variety of scholarships. Court chapters receive frequent recognition by elected officials and celebrities for their humanitarian contributions.
Unlike many other large charitable fundraising organizations, the Imperial Court System is comprised entirely of volunteers. There are no paid positions within the Imperial Court System and both the culture of the Court System and the regulations set down by the boards of directors of each chapter prohibit any member from profiting from the Imperial Court or its activities. Rather, depending on individual level of involvement with the system, many court members spend hundreds or thousands of dollars of their own money each year on costumes, travel to events in other parts of North America, and donations to various charitable beneficiaries.
While composed primarily of gay and transgender as well as lesbian, bisexual and transwomen, each court is open to all. Gay, bisexual, transgender and straight people have all served as monarchs and court members in the system's history. Drag queens, and cross-dressers collectively comprise about half of the membership.
The Court System also appeals to people interested in various forms of costume and dress-up who are willing to lend their enthusiasm to the court's culture of charitable fundraising including those involved with the leather fetishism and leather subcultures, members of the Society for Creative Anachronism and similar historical reenactment hobbyists, various types of cosplay enthusiasts, and so on.
Most court members, especially monarchs, past-monarchs and those aspiring towards a throne, wear an assortment of regalia including elaborate crowns, bejeweled chains of office and other costume jewelry which is often custom-made for the wearer.
Many court members are involved with other LGBT groups, especially non-profit groups that provide charitable services directly rather than providing the funds for such services as IICS does. Besides these, two specific spheres of activity have relevance to IICS history:
Competitive pageantry: Some court members have also been involved with competitive pageantry, especially drag pageants and the various leather competitions through which people may qualify for International Mister Leather. Like the IICS, these competitions provide an opportunity to garner titles while showcasing one's appearance and talents. Some court chapters grew out of the sphere of competitive pageantry and some courts conduct annual competitive "Mr. Gay. .." and "Miss Gay. .." (or similarly named) pageants as part of their fundraising schedule.
Ball culture: Less frequently, the Imperial Court has had overlapping membership and joint ventures with drag houses of the type documented in Paris is Burning. For example, during the 1990s the annual "Snow Ball" in Hartford was both a coronation and a competition in which contestant did "walks" in various specific categories in order to win trophies. The IICS has innumerable "houses" within its ranks as mentioned above. However, unlike drag houses such as the House of Xtravaganza and House of Labeija, houses within the IICS are not an important means of organization within the group and there is no limit to the number of houses to which a person can belong.
- The Widow Norton and other Imperial Court members appear in the opening scenes of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
- Nicole the Great is a San Diego city commissioner and dined with Gray Davis, former Governor of California.
- Fiona St. James, Empress XV of New York City, played Fiona Zonioni on the HBO television series Oz for four seasons.
- Night of a Thousand Gowns, the coronation of the Imperial Court of New York, customarily features celebrity co-chairs such as Cindy Lauper, Bruce Vilanch, B.D. Wong, Tim Gunn, Michael Kors and Isabella Rossellini. Likewise, famous New York City entertainers such as The Lady Bunny and Kevin Aviance typically make an appearance.
-  Los Angeles Times
-  San Francisco Bay Times
- The court has chapters in the United States and Canada but also does charity work in Mexico, particularly through the Imperial Court de San Diego
- Gorman, Michael Robert MA (1998). The Empress Is a Man: Stories from the Life of José Sarria. New York: Haworth Press. ISBN 0789002590.
-  PBS: Joshua Abraham Norton (c.1818-1880)
-  Imperial Court of San Francisco, the Founding Mother Court of the International Court System
-  Boston Phoenix (Note that this article is from 1996. The Barony of Massachusetts discussed herein became the Imperial Court of Massachusetts in 2000.)
-  The Now Newspaper
-  1997 José Honors Award Recipients
-  Gay & Lesbian Times
- Official Statement/Imperial Bull by Empress I Jose, The Widow Norton and Empress Nicole the Great, President International Court Council, dated 4 February 2008
-  International Imperial Court System Directory
-  History of the Imperial Court of Massachusetts
-  2004 Newsletter from the Barony of Chicago discussing the transition to The Imperial Windy City Court of the Prairie State Empire. Like other empires whose official names are similarly verbose, this chapter is often referred to by a simpler and more obvious appellation (in this case, Imperial Court of Chicago)
-  Theatre.net
- Specifics of the order of precedence may vary between realms but most match or closely resemble that observed for the peerage in the United Kingdom where (for example) princes rank higher than dukes
- Unlike actual IICS titles, society memberships, family titles and similar honors may typically be awarded to non-IICS members.
-  New York Q News
- As stated in the Night of One Thousand Gowns Program 2002, the 2001 event resulted in a $24,000 donation to the Callen-Lorde Community Health Project, $24,000 to Safe Space, and $19,000 to New Jersey Friends for Life.
-  Introduction to the Imperial Court System
-  Bay Area Reporter
-  In Montana for example, the Mr. & Miss Gay Montana pageant begun in 1987 laid the foundation for that state's empire begun in 1995.
-  Among those court chapters with webpages that detail their active membership, innumerable example can be found of individuals who hold both court and pageant titles.
-  The New Yorker magazine
- Snow Ball 1996 (Imperial Court of Connecticut Coronation Program)
- To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar at the Internet Movie Database
-  Gay & Lesbian Times
-  PlanetOut