In the early days of Casa de San Jose’s informal association of drag queens, they would travel to San Francisco for the city’s world-famous drag shows. Ray Aguilar, a San Jose drag queen, requested permission to form an IICS chapter in San Jose, which formed as Casa de San Jose of Santa Clara County Inc in the early 1970s. In 1990, the organization was reincorporated as The Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy, Inc. of San Jose.
Casa de San Jose elected a full royal court every year: an emperor and empress, crown princes and princesses, czar and czarina, and grand dukes and duchesses. Every March, the Grand Coronation Ball served as large fundraising events and the election of the new emperor, empress, and court. Title rules were as follows: anyone was eligible, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, but they must reside in Santa Clara County and demonstrate successful sponsorship of community fundraising events.
Unlike many other courts, the Imperial Court in San Jose was open to people of all genders and sexual orientations to participate, including running for emperor and empress. Anyone in attendance could vote (with proof of residence) by placing their ballots at a table in the front of the hall to be counted later. Winners were then escorted on stage to be crowned by the host emperor and empress.
Kevin Roche remembers during his time as an Emperor: “My empress is actually transgender and she had strong connections into that community. We actually got a bunch of members of Carla Salon, which is a transgender social club, to come out and join us. Carla’s was a place where they could go and they could dress up and no one would see them, but they could do that at a court event because no one was surprised to see masculine looking people in dresses. A number of them actually joined and were some of our most effective members. That was really fun to see them being in public where that part of themselves could come out.”
Various balls raised money for different causes. The money raised was donated to charitable organizations, including the American Heart Association and American Cancer Research. As the AIDS crisis grew, they began donating to the Visiting Nurses Association and local AIDS charities.
In the early days, almost every drag performer in San Jose was involved in the Imperial Court. To join the Imperial Court, one had to come out during the Closet Ball. The Closet Ball was a way for amateurs new to performing to debut their drag personas and find mentors to help develop their performance. The performers had to be sponsored by an established queen and they were given an hour to transform into their drag persona.
Kevin Roche’s experience at the Closet Ball was showbusiness disappointment. “San Jose has had both drag queens and drag kings. So Lucy [Manhattan] talked me into entering the Closet Ball one year. It was awful. I worked really hard on it and the person who won had actually been performing weekly, but Lucy said, ‘If you’ll forgive me for getting you into this, there’s a charity show I’m doing in a month and I’d like to work with you and help you actually put together an act.’”
In recent years, pageants overtook the Imperial Court in popularity in San Jose. Pageants run outside the Imperial Court system, and many have opted to participate in those instead. The Imperial Court of San Jose dissolved in 2018. Those who wanted to continue participating in court traditions joined the San Francisco Imperial Court, which also permitted them to keep any titles earned in San Jose.