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.”
Created as Lambda Association’s eponymous newsletter arm in 1976, Lambda News–run by Dan Relic–was one of the first examples of local gay press in Silicon Valley. Evolving from a simple newsletter, Lambda News reported on local gay organizations, businesses, and events around Silicon Valley. Originally a purely volunteer-run paper, Lambda News faced constraints that led to Relic taking it over as a private venture to ensure its future viability. In April 1983, Lambda News dissolved as a result of low ad revenue and disorganization.
The celebration of pride in Silicon Valley can be characterized as a series of struggles and triumphs. Whether it was presiding over one the largest pride events in between San Francisco and Los Angeles to staving-off bankruptcy and uneven organization, Pride in Silicon Valley has persevered and evolved into a wondrous event that the LGBTQ community eagerly awaits every year.
The Gay Student Union was able to organize the first pride event in Silicon Valley. The main event began at 9:30 am, with other events held in various parts of the SJSU campus. Workshops included bisexuality, drag, couples, legal rights, religion, and sadomasochism. The day was closed with a potluck dinner and dance at the Student Union Ballroom.
St. James Park (1976-1980)
Sponsored by the Lambda Association, the first Gay Freedom Rally and Dance was held downtown at St. James Park. More than 300 people attended, and it was considered a small but strong showing for Silicon Valley’s first official pride event. Guests included Harvey Milk, who was a speaker in 1978. This would be come to the location for pride for the next four years.
City Park Plaza (1981-1982)
The Lambda Association moved its Gay Freedom Rally to City Park Plaza (now known as Plaza de Cesar Chavez) on San Carlos and Market Streets.
St. James Park (1983-1985)
Renamed Gay Pride Celebration in 1983, the organizers returned the festival to St. James Park. By then, there were more gay businesses and organizations participating than ever before.
5,000 people participated in 1985, marking a huge milestone for Pride and the LGBTQ community in Silicon Valley.
SJSU Athletic Fields (1986)
Due to redevelopment efforts at St. James Park, San Jose Pride moved to the SJSU Athletic Fields on 10th and Alma. Attendance remained stable, despite the financial constraints and a venue change.
Santa Clara County Fairgrounds (1987-1993)
After 1986, the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds was chosen as a less expensive alternative to St. James Park, one that also allowed for more flexibility with vendors and better accessibility to facilities. Though Pride had been cast out of downtown, festivities and attendance continued to grow each year.
The Alameda Pride and Parade (1993)
While the location of Pride at The Alameda was brief, it drew a great deal more attention and recognition than it had in the past. Mayor Susan Hammer was named one of the grand marshals, the first time a San Jose mayor participated in Pride. With 10,000 people attending, Pride became far more than a niche event for the local LGBTQ community.
Stockton Strip (1994)
Despite the previous year’s success, Pride was endangered. The Gay Pride Celebration had lost thousands of dollars the previous year. In an effort to preserve its momentum, Stockton Avenue was chosen as a cost-effective way of organizing gay businesses and activities in a central area. While there was a significant decrease in attendance (only about 2,000 per day), Stockton Avenue kept Pride alive in Silicon Valley.
Discovery Meadow (1995-2014)
The move to Discovery Meadow in 1995 ushered in a more stable and organized era of Pride in San Jose. Attendance broke a new record with 12,000 attendees. Five years later it reached 20,000. Additionally, the appearance of high-profile individuals, including drag superstar RuPaul in 1998, offered even more reasons for people to participate in Pride. Discovery Meadow remained Pride’s home for several years. In 2014, San Jose Pride was renamed Silicon Valley Pride to be more inclusive of neighboring communities.
2014 Silicon Valley Pride Poster
2015 Silicon Valley Pride Poster
2016 Silicon Valley Pride Poster
Park Avenue and Almaden Boulevard (2015-2016)
Under new chair Thaddeus Campbell, Silicon Valley Pride had its first parade event in years. This new parade also coincided with a new event location on Park Avenue and Almaden Boulevard. In 2016, the organization launched the first Saturday Night Festival.
Plaza de Cesar Chavez (2017-2019)
After successfully restarting Pride with a new parade and location, along with unloading the troublesome debt accrued in previous years, Thaddeus Campbell oversaw Silicon Valley Pride’s move back to Plaza de Cesar Chavez. Because Pride tends to be majority male driven events, in 2018 the organization launched HEY GIRL, a queer female identified group under Silicon Valley Pride umbrella started by Liz Asborno and Nicole Altamirano, as well as the first Trans and Friends Rally and a Drag Queen Cooking Showdown.
2017 Silicon Valley Pride Poster
2018 Silicon Valley Pride Poster
2019 Silicon Valley Pride Poster
Digital Venue (2020)
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Silicon Valley Pride debuted a virtual celebration of Pride. Community members were invited to submit videos of their art, dance, or a simple greeting to commemorate Pride.
Heralded as the first pride parade in the South Bay, the 1991 San Jose Gay Pride Parade marked the first in many efforts in heightening the visibility of the LGBTQ community. The parade was on Stockton Avenue, going from Taylor Street to the Alameda, and concluded at the Billy DeFrank Center. Stockon Avenue was a prime location for the parade, largely owing to the Stockton Strip and its gay clubs and businesses.
After the move of the Gay Pride Celebration to Discovery Park, the parade was able to resume in 1995. The new downtown route was along Market Street, beginning at St. James Street and ending at Park Avenue. Attendance was consistent, with parade having an uninterrupted 14-year streak. Unfortunately in 2009, the recession had hit organizers deeply, leading to an end of the parade. In 2015, after rebranding itself as Silicon Valley Pride, the parade made a successful comeback along its regular route on Market Street.
Established by the San Jose group Sisters of Sappha in 1974, Lesbian Voices was the preeminent feminist lesbian quarterly in Silicon Valley. Publication was suspended in 1978, as owners Johnie Staggs and Rosalie ‘Nikki’ Nichols redirected their efforts towards a self-described political fight against fundamentalists. In 1980, Lesbian Voices would resume publication for one year before permanently ending.
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.