Garry Taylor of Ferndale is beyond the time at age 57 that he will present himself as Riva Lucian, but she is still a significant part of him.
“We are one in the same. I do not suppress her,” said Taylor about the woman he was born to be.
While sneaking into Toronto bars dressed in his mother’s clothes, Taylor found Riva’s voice (his hadn’t cracked yet) at 15 years old. He passed for a woman in his tall, slender body with long, shoulder-length hair.
“I never felt the need to have gender reassignment surgery though. I never felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body. I have always just been comfortable melding my masculinity and my femininity,” said Taylor, who was raised in Oshawa, Ontario and later moved to Vancouver, British Columbia where he met Jeff, his future husband. They moved to Seattle, Washington together in 1988 where Taylor carried himself so gracefully into his adult life as a showgirl, a fundraising activist and female impersonator.
He was destined to become a member of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle where he earned the titles of Imperial Sovereign Highness and Imperial Princess XXII in the Olympic and Rainier Empires.
As Taylor reflects upon his life as Riva, his ultra-feminine mannerisms happen so naturally.
“That is part of the drag community that I was born into and came from,” he said about his Hollywood Glamour style of drag.
Presenting himself as a “real lady” meant shaving his mustache regularly, tweezing his eyebrows, maintaining a French manicure, painting and contouring himself to create the illusion of breasts, and applying makeup and false eyelashes.
“I acted like, talked like and moved like a lady. When I used to smoke, I would hold a cigarette and smoke like a lady,” said Taylor, who smelled like a lady, too, wearing Riva’s favorite perfume, White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor.
He points to a few of his favorite fashion pieces that denote important times in his drag history. One in particular, a black cocktail dress, was presented to Riva by iconic designer Bob Mackie. When asked to put the size of Riva’s wardrobe in perspective, Taylor said, “I have a 21-foot living room. I couldn’t line up all of my dresses from wall to wall without doubling them up.”
A display case in Taylor’s home shows and protects some of Riva’s crowns. He has keepsake albums full of Riva’s photos dressed as Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Joan Rivers and Rita Moreno, to name a few. Riva has performed at all of the casinos on the West Coast and made lifelong friends with some of her “cohorts in crime” – Madison Lane, Ashley O’Day and her best friend, Shirley Todae.
Tubs of custom-made gowns for a 17-inch waist, costume jewelry (some cost $700 a set), wigs, feather boas and Stiletto heels have been tucked away in the basement since Riva retired in 2007. When Jeff accepted a job offer, Taylor moved with him to Michigan.
“At the time it wasn’t hard. She was okay being packed up while I was so busy relocating and furnishing our new home,” he said. The self-described “old soul” prefers antique decor in their Ferndale home, which is a cross between Federal and Victorian periods. Some heirloom pieces from the ’40s have been added.
Taylor pined over Riva for a moment after the house was in order, but he occupies his time now as the president and museum director with the Ferndale Historical Society.
The International Imperial Court System is one of the oldest and largest LGBT organizations in the world. The non-profit networking and fundraising organization was founded in San Francisco, California, in 1965 by Jose Sarria. The IICS works to build community relationships for equality and raise monies for charitable causes through the production of annual Gala Coronation Balls that invite an unlimited audience of attendees to be presented at Royal Court in their fanciest attire throughout North America along with numerous other fundraisers each year, all for the benefit of their communities.
During the ceremony, new monarch or monarchs are crowned. The method by which monarchs are selected varies from chapter to chapter, ranging from election by vote among the active membership in closed session to election by open vote of the community region in which individuals are residents.
Drag shows, ranging 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.
While composed primarily of LGBT people, membership is open to all. LGBT and cisgender people have all served as monarchs and court members in the system’s history. Over the past fifty years, the IICS has grown to represent communities in 86 different locations across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
Drag for a Cause
Taylor said Riva didn’t limit herself to Imperial Balls and fancy hotel performances though.
“I played some of the dingiest, smokiest dive bars around,” he said. “I was willing and had the courage and confidence to walk into those places, stand on tiny little stages in the corner to share a part of the world people see in their community, but aren’t a part of, and let people know we need their support.”
Taylor remembers the Lenny Larsen “Jars in Bars” campaign in Seattle during the AIDS crisis when they raised $28,000 in three years all in one and five dollar bills.
“We were really busy during the Reagan years when so many people were lost to AIDS – when it was called the gay plague,” he said. “We had our activists and our political leaders that were fighting and lobbying to get things done, but after we did our shows on stage, we would change out of drag and go into the hospitals to feed and bathe and lotion and do things for these dying, deserted members of our community. We stood with them and held their hands and let them die with some dignity because not even the nurses would touch them back in the day because they were so frightened. It was up to us.”
Memories like these are worth the thousands of dollars Taylor said he spent out-of-pocket to bring Riva to life.
“My career was always to be comfortable and to spend the money where I could walk out looking like I did and have enough people drawn to me that they wanted to know what my message was,” he said. “Then I could give my message and I could get the money and give the money to where it was needed.”
Taylor chose the name Riva Lucian (like Revolution) when he came out because he was adamant that this was going to make a difference.
Taylor said Riva is, was and always will be a beautiful catalyst.
“You can give me all the awards and accolades, but that’s not why I did it,” he said about the 172 events he participated in from the time Riva was crowned in 1997 until stepping down in 1998.
“Sure, the accolades are nice, but I would always say the real success is the people that congregated and reached into their pockes and contributed, both straight and gay, to the need. Those are the people that made me a success.”
Taylor said there is no Imperial Court in Michigan because there is no safe place to do it and not many people are familiar with or understand this particular art form.
“I have yet to find glamour queens in a gathered capacity,” he said. “We’re prideful on the East and West Coasts, but I think we need a leader in the Midwest.”
Having knocked on so many doors to break down barriers, Taylor said he is happy to mentor the younger generation that might be interested in doing this, emphasizing the investment of time and money required.
“It’s possible to pull this off with fabulous fakes,” he said, noting that anyone can do this with costumes off of Goodwill racks.
“If you’re really into it, there are people who are willing to get behind you and lend you jewelry until you can afford your own. They will sew for you and make you gowns so you can have your own wardrobe. If I can find a size 10, six-foot drag queen, I have 20 beaded gowns in every color of the rainbow I can give to them right now because I could never get into them again and not that I would want to,” said Taylor, whose activism has changed over the years. But he is “very proud” of his career and would be more than willing to introduce a sector of the female illusionary community that people don’t see in this state.
When asked what he misses the most about Riva, Taylor said, “The ability to say we need this in our community. Let me make a few phone calls and organize the girls for a fundraiser and bring the damn disconnected people together into a hub where they feel camaraderie, security and safety. Where they feel like they’re contributing and that they’re benefiting from the fundraising we’re doing.”