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Despite campy looks, Windy City Empire supports local causes
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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When title are given out during the investiture of the Windy City Empire on Dec. 6, there was a ceremony, crowns and plenty of camp. In fact, it was "really, really campy—because that's what we do," said Neil Douglas James, who serves as the organization's emperor.

Clearly, this service organization is all about the fun, and the funds, as it raises money for other LGBT service organizations. In the past, the Windy City Empire ( formally known as the Imperial Windy City Court of the Prairie State Empire ) has aided The Night Ministry and other local organizations. This year, Chicago House is the benefactor of Windy City Empire funds.

Two years ago, the group raised about $1,500 for charity. This year, it generated about $4,500, and James said the Windy City Empire is shooting for $8,000 in 2015.

The International Court System ( ICS ) features 72 non-profit chapters, including the Windy City Empire, in three countries ( U.S., Canada and Mexico ), as its members utilize their unique talents to raise funds and awareness, educate and teach, and help fulfill the needs of their communities, according to the group's website.

"We put the fun back in fundraising," the group states.

Members run across the LGBT rainbow and locally the group has more than tripled in size over the past year.

The [members'] titles are camp, tongue in cheek in nature. They are the way that our organization, because it was founded by a drag queen in 1965, recognizes who has put in and made a commitment to the year for doing a lot of the work for raising funds for our yearly picked charity," James said. The local chapter is in its 11th year. James was a member in year one and two, and returned last year.

"I'm very passionate about the organization and I take it very seriously."

The investiture will be held at Atmosphere in Andersonville, with doors opening at 6 p.m., the show at 7 p.m., and then a show afterward.

"We're doing our best now so that everyone understands that, the Empire is trying to be the most inclusive gay organization that exists in town. So, we are inviting all the leather boys, all the drag queens, transsexuals, straights, lesbians, and others to come join us and help us support the cause," said James, who is openly gay. He is originally from Texas, has lived in Chicago for about 10 years, calls the Edgewater neighborhood home and is a full-time master's graduate student at Argosy University in the Loop.

The court system was founded when a group of San Francisco gay bar owners formed a Tavern Guild in 1965 as a means to stand in solidarity with one another under the pressure of police harassment, its website states. The Guild put on the first large public drag ball in San Francisco's history called the Beaux Arts Ball. In its third year Jose Julio Sarria, a World War II veteran and the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in North America, in 1961, was declared the Queen of the Ball, and then declared himself Empress.

Organization titles include emperor, empress, prince, princess, and more.

"One of the things I enjoy about [the organization] is, I enjoy dressing up and being over-the-top," James said. "I used to be a drag queen, yet don't want to do drag anymore. So, with this organization I get to be as fabulous as I want to be, and I don't have to put on a dress. And that's fun for me because it gives me an ice-breaker for me to talk to new people, a way to be socially-responsible because, at 37, it's time for me to give back to my community. And that's very important to me."

James said the Windy City Empire has a January event planned, a Valentine's Day weekend event at Manhole in Lakeview and a tentative 2015 event with Chi Chi LaRue, probably during the spring or summer.

"The crowns and gowns are part of the fun," James said.

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