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Halifax to Crown its Twelfth Emperor

A look inside Nova Scotia's Imperial Sovereign Court

by Natascia L

Jozef Crooks during his first reign as emperor 4 (photo courtesy of ISCANS web site).
Jozef Crooks during his first reign as emperor 4 (photo courtesy of ISCANS web site).

This isn’t how Jozef Crooks normally looks.

Casual attire consists of leather chaps, a leather vest, jeans and a white T-shirt. For formal events, he sports leather pants, a leather dress shirt, tie, cap and gloves topped with a leather coat followed by its eight-foot train.

Crooks is a leather man, a member of the gay subculture fond of this textile.

But not everybody shares his love. So, this 41-year-old decided to tone down the rawhide for a shopping spree at American Eagle Outfitters. His only swath of leather is a thick, black bracelet. The rolled up sleeves of his faded plaid shirt reveal some of Crooks’s 30 tattoos: a tombstone, a pair of Doc Martins and even sperm. They help tell his story.

At 16, Crooks’s parents threw him out of their Toronto home. He worked as a prostitute for several years and got himself through high school. He also began a relationship with a man and bruises that would span 13 years.

In 1990, he followed his partner to New Brunswick where they would crisscross the province from Saint John to Sussex and everywhere in between. Crooks eventually hitchhiked to Moncton in 2001 to escape the abuse.

The following year, he found his way to Halifax. It’s there he would meet his current husband and be crowned emperor. Twice.

“I don’t do the ‘his most imperial majesty’ stuff. I never have. You just call me Jozef. You don’t have to bow to me,” says Crooks, Emperor 11 and former Emperor 4 of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Atlantic Nova Society (ISCANS).

The International Imperial Court System was founded in San Francisco in 1965 as a camp entertainment society with overblown titles, a parliament and strict protocol. It has since ballooned to 69 chapters in North America and Mexico.

The Halifax court was established in 2000. It soon became a mainstay supporter of local charities like Manna for Health and the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia Emergency Relief Fund.

It also serves as a social network for Halifax’s 40-year-old gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. “We’re not just a gay organization, we’re about community,” says Crooks. “We’re about accepting everybody and welcoming everybody and not turning anyone away.”

Like Nate N! Bent, formally drag queen Juicy Fruit, legally Nathan Boudreau whose face has been plastered on the walls of Reflections Cabaret and Menz Bar for the past two weeks. He’s counting on his “Absolutely Nate!” poster featuring a rainbow-striped stuffed polar bear and a hopeful grin to win him the upcoming election for Emperor 12.

At 29 years old, Boudreau has squeezed onto the Imperial International Court’s 30 Under 30 Council, has held several positions on the ISCANS board of directors, and was once “His most imperial sovereign majesty, the diamond ruby scorpion with the topaz tail, the kid at heart who still loves his rainbows.”

He’s determined to regain that title. If he does, he aims to encourage youth to join the court.

Boudreau’s only competitor has similar goals. Allan Dowding, 49, has established a quiet campaign presence on Facebook. Wrinkled and greyed, Dowding is one of ISCANS’s original members.

“I believe in it and I’m going to keep going as much as possible just seeing how far it goes,” he says through moustached lips.

This election marks his third time vying for the position of emperor.

“No comment,” Crooks blurts with regards to the candidates. He pauses, hangs his head and exhales heavily. His eyes flood with tears. “It’s going to be an incredible night,” he says of the coronation ceremony.

Crooks whips out his cellphone to reveal a picture of him cloaked in a fur-draped bike helmet fashioned with two deer horns. He plans to wear it with a dress shirt, tie and kilt to recall his Celtic roots.

And this time around, he has close friends to revel in his attire.

Through court visits in cities across North America, Crooks assembled a 19-member strong family. Not to be confused with blood relatives, Crooks’s family consists of boys, daddies, sirs and masters, a structure dictated by the leather subculture.

“If I would have never gotten involved with ISCANS, I wouldn’t have the life I have now, and the people that love me,” says Crooks.

Seventeen family members will be converging in Halifax for the Feb. 4 event.

“It’s a climax. Then, you end up dealing with the day after,” says Crooks. “The day after is: I’m a nobody. You’re not really a nobody; you’re just a was-y.

On Saturday, Nova Scotia will be heading to the polls. Only one thing is for certain, says Crooks of the winner, “It won’t be me.” That’s OK. He will have more time to focus on just being Jozef, leather and all.

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