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