The Drag Queens of Silicon Valley

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Currently in San Jose, Drag Queens participate in pageants or shows, where they express themselves through their performances.  There is a strong partnership between the San Jose and Santa Clara County Queens and Kings and the San Francisco scene as well, making the community stronger with so many participating.

Since the onset of Covid-19, the performers have been turning to virtual spaces. To catch some of their shows, sign up for newsletters and notifications from the venues’ websites:

Explore the Imperial Courts and Drag Community

Kelli Collins 1

Jeff McGee AKA Kelli Collins

Jeff was an integral part of the gay community in the 80s and 90s. His performances as Kelli Collins in innumerable drag shows raised thousands of dollars for many causes, primarily for early AIDS victims who had no financial or medical support at that time. Jeff moved to the South ...
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royal members the annual imperial court event scaled

Imperial Courts

Kevin Roche, a member of the Imperial Courts, remembers that it was over fifty years ago when groups in Portland and San Francisco first started drag balls. “This is when being in drag was a more transgressive activity than it is considered nowadays,” he said in an interview. This was ...
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ray aguilar crown

Casa de San Jose

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 ...
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rachel crowning scaled

Ray Aguilar

Aguilar always urged family members to celebrate holidays together. He was a founding member of The Imperial AIDS Foundation, which provided hot meals, paid rent, prescriptions, and provided transportation to medical appointments for people living with AIDS . Ray Aguilar died due to complications from AIDS in February 1995 ...
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Imperial Courts

royal members the annual imperial court event scaled

Kevin Roche, a member of the Imperial Courts, remembers that it was over fifty years ago when groups in Portland and San Francisco first started drag balls. “This is when being in drag was a more transgressive activity than it is considered nowadays,” he said in an interview. This was the beginning of the Imperial Courts on the West Coast. After drag balls were established behind the scenes in 1967, the International Imperial Court System (IICS) was founded in San Francisco and hosted many drag shows and coronation balls. Later IICS was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization to raise money for charity while still having a lot of fun.

Mama José, also known as José Julio Sarria, was the first Empress in San Francisco, the mother of all queens participating in the Imperial Courts. Kevin recalled: “She was the mother empress of us all. She rather notoriously declared herself empress when she won a pageant at one of these balls and they were going to crown her queen, and she took the Tiara out of their hands and says, ‘I’ve been a queen all my life. I hear hereby declare myself Empress.’ This was something that was transgressive. This was revolutionary.” Mama José was an outspoken activist for the drag community in San Francisco, whose goals for the Imperial Courts included education and cultivating a greater community sense of gay pride, identity, and unity.

The San Francisco chapter of the Imperial Court is still active today. Mama José died a few years ago, in 2013; a piece about her on the Imperial Court’s website notes that Mama José was “a proud openly gay Latino, drag queen, and one of the great iconic American pioneering political activists and leaders of the modern-day LGBT Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements, [who] gracefully and peacefully passed on from this life after a long battle with cancer at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at 7:02 AM on Monday, August 19, 2013 in his 90th year blessing this earth.”

Learn more about participating in the Imperial Courts at their website: imperialcouncilsf.org

Ray Aguilar

rachel crowning scaled

Aguilar always urged family members to celebrate holidays together. He was a founding member of The Imperial AIDS Foundation, which provided hot meals, paid rent, prescriptions, and provided transportation to medical appointments for people living with AIDS . Ray Aguilar died due to complications from AIDS in February 1995.

Casa de San Jose

ray aguilar crown

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.

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Jeff McGee AKA Kelli Collins

Kelli Collins 1

Jeff was an integral part of the gay community in the 80s and 90s. His performances as Kelli Collins in innumerable drag shows raised thousands of dollars for many causes, primarily for early AIDS victims who had no financial or medical support at that time.

Jeff moved to the South Bay in 1981. It wasn’t long after arriving in San Jose that AIDS became a tragic reality for the entire community. Jeff began to attend and host fundraisers with the Imperial AIDS Foundation to help support awareness.

Before long, he found himself more deeply involved with the community and started doing drag and performing at various events at The Savoy, TD’s, Club St. John, Mac’s Club, Buck’s, and any other venue whose doors and hearts were open.

Fundraising for the AIDS victims united lesbians and gay men, and also enabled much needed financial help for so many victims of this then-misunderstood disease.

While fundraising for the Imperial AIDS Foundation, he was asked if he’d be interested in joining a group of entertainers, fundraisers, and club personalities in the South Bay community by becoming part of a group representing the Imperial Court System, a nationwide organization.

The South Bay chapter of the Imperial Court System was called the Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy (IRLM). The figureheads of the organization were called Emperors and the Empresses. Jeff accepted the nomination for Empress, and in 1990, as his stage persona Kelli Collins, was crowned Empress 20 of the Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy. 

The AIDS crisis continued, so the fundraising and the generosity of the community, both lesbian and gay alike, came together and supported the fight against discrimination, AIDS and many other issues of the day. There was a true sense of community during those times. Everyone opened their hearts and their wallets and joined forces to get done what needed to be done.