Remembering Tonya Rose

We lost Rose Empress 40 after a prolonged illness earlier this week.

(NOTE: using female pronouns when I am using Cecil Lasure’s drag name Tonya Rose, which she went by pretty much 24/7 regardless.)

For those not aware, the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court, our drag organization for lack of a better term, is the second-oldest LGBTQi organization still standing in the United States. It is set up like a constitutional monarchy, with titles much like those in British nobility.

A great many people have passed through their ranks, myself included, as First Gentleman in 2007-2008. However, if you’re not actively in the bar/club scene, it may seem all very foreign and strange, but dressed better than anyone else in town.

Cecil Lasure, better known to us all as Tonya Rose. Date unknown, photo courtesy of Kasha Haugh from a Facebook post on Tonya’s page.

You may have seen some of the “titleholders” at Darcelle’s while you and your girlfriends were celebrating your besties upcoming nuptials. But this only tells a small part of the outreach and fundraising that this organization provides to our community. A “titleholder”, for those not in the know, is a community representative, and their term of service usually last 365 days.

I had met several “court” performers now and again after moving to Oregon in 1999. (Again, for those not aware, there are many different geographic regions for these drag organizations, each one being represented by a different “court”.) The first one I truly ever made a connection with was a man named Cecil Lasure, or Empress 40, Tonya Rose. She left us on 09 September 2018 after a prolonged illness. She seemed to be on the mend as of late, so understand it was pretty shocking to hear this yesterday.

A more recent photo, courtesy of Nikki Ontolodge Monet again from Tonya’s Facebook feed.

There are those in our community who, for lack of a better word, can’t stand someone else’s success, and things can get downright catty, petty and just plain hateful. Tonya Rose, in all the dealings I had with her, was none of those things. She was, however, the target at times of some of this vile behavior. I never asked about it, and she never gave it much importance, preferring to shine on the BS and do her thing. 

There were many events, fundraisers and community events I was proud to have Tonya Rose on board with. She never made too much fuss about her involvement, preferring instead to dig in and get things done. One particular happening, however, stands out in my mind head and shoulders above all the rest.

I was on the board of directors with the Oregon Bears, as well as their media chairman, in 2006. I was tasked with creating media for the upcoming Holiday Show, the biggest non-titleholder event of the year, which also brings in members of the Leather and Drag communities. I asked our titleholders, the Oregon Bear and Oregon Cub, to come to my apartment downtown for a photo shoot, gave them instructions on what to wear, and invited Tonya Rose to be a part of this.

Bill Spencer, another Rose Court and Oregon Bear titleholder, left, with Tonya Rose, celebrating her 20 year Empress anniversary in 2017.

The guys were much more nervous than Tonya was; she was a complete professional. I still don’t know how she was able to change into so many different outfits so quickly in my tiny bathroom. I thought the shots came out OK, but nothing was really saying “that’s it”. Again, Steve Strong (Oregon Bear) and Charles Ham (Oregon Cub) were doing their best to give me what I said I wanted; I just could not verbalize or envision what the hell this was going to look like. 

And then, with the last picture on the 35mm film roll I had, the guys stood and smiled at my request, and Tonya Rose brought in the moment this project really needed. 

Photo of Tonya Rose and digital effects by yours truly, November 2006. 

I quickly drew up a draft, and the board absolutely loved it. But then, about a week later, something happened: There was someone connected with the Rose Court who didn’t want Tonya Rose’s picture in the poster. The board decided that they didn’t want to rock the boat and let them make this decision for us. I was furious beyond words, and had to reshoot the poster using another Empress in less than suitable conditions with time working against us.

I had to break the very sad news of what had happened to Tonya. Instead of being angry or bitter, she apologized for their behavior, told me not to take it personally and told me it didn’t matter: she had a great time, and that she was proud that I asked her to be a part of it. Because that is just who she was: a damn lovely person who really didn’t have time for the crap, at least in my view and my history with her. And she honestly didn’t care who said what. 

Let me be very clear about this turn of events: I don’t feel angry about it or hold anyone accountable for this.

  • I don’t have time to get upset about it.
  • Tonya was right about staying focused on the goal to see the positive impact we’re making.
  • Speaking from a purely design standpoint, many times, the client makes a bad call, and you know it’s a bad call and have to roll with it anyway.
  • Haters gonna hate. 
(l-r) Sy A Waranch, Cecil Lasure a.k.a. Tonya Rose and Lynnda Hale, July 16, 2018, courtesy of Sy A Waranch from a Facebook upload.

To this day, I have never publicly shown the “official” 2006 Oregon Bears Holiday Poster once the event was over. I have, however, kept the original draft on my site for years and even included it in my 2010 solo show, Tangible Vandalism 2. 

Why show a piece that was rejected? Because sometimes getting to tell a story about someone who decides not to allow other people to make her feel poorly about herself is a gift to those who need a moment of empowerment when the world does its best to push you down. 

Most importantly, it was literally just 1 or 2 people as I understand it, and I am not going to let the poor behavior of a couple of negative people ruin my understanding and viewpoint of the great work and outreach the Rose Court does day in and day out.

Click here to open a free PDF to view or download. (l-r) Steve Strong, Tonya Rose and Charles Ham.

And, there is just that magic thing about it. Thank you for your friendship Empress 40 Tonya Rose. Know that you were loved and appreciated more than you may ever know. 

BTW, our music show tomorrow is Cher 1971-1974. Hoping it reaches you and inspires you to bring light, love and laughter to those in your next reality as you did for me on this existence.

Love to you all.

Daddy Ben “Bear” Brown Jr., owner

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