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:

Rudy Galindo

rudy galindo profile

In 1996, San Jose was the site of one of the biggest upsets in American figure skating history when Rudy Galindo became the oldest male national champion of the modern era at age 26. Galindo was also the first openly gay figure skating champion, having come out before the competition began.

Galindo was raised in a trailer home in East San Jose with his sister Laura. He began figure skating at an early age and his career took off when he began skating pairs with Fremont native Kristi Yamaguchi. As a team Galindo and Yamaguchi won three U.S. national championships. However, after 1990 Yamaguchi retired from pairs competition to focus on individual skating.

rudy galindo autobiography 1

The AIDS epidemic had a major impact on Galindo’s personal and professional lives. His and Yamaguchi’s first coach, Jim Hulick, died of AIDS in 1989. In 1994, Galindo lost both his brother George and another coach Rick Inglesi to AIDS.

Despite those hardships, Galindo won the men’s singles champion title in front of a hometown crowd as the U.S. Figure Skating Championships were held at the San Jose Arena on January 20th, 1996. In the competition, he was the only male competitor to land combination triple jumps. After his performance Rudy chanted the names Jess, George, Jim, and Rick, who had all helped him to achieve the victory.

His championship defied the norms of the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Galindo later said he feared being an out skater might lower his score because of some judge’s discomfort with his identity.

In 1997, he released his autobiography Icebreaker. Proceeds from the book were donated toward funding the expansion of the San Jose Public Library’s Biblioteca Latinoamericana.

In 2000, Galindo announced he was HIV positive.

Today, he coaches figure skating at Sharks Ice in San Jose. His students include Kristi Yamaguchi’s daughter.

He was inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame in 2011 and the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2013. He has set the path for numerous LGBT and HIV-positive athletes to be themselves.

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.

OutNow! (1993-2009)

out now magazine cover

First published by Chris Thomas in 1993, OutNow! began as a newspaper dedicated be the South Bay’s source for gay news. Mark Gillard brought OutNow! out of debt in 1998 and restarted it as a magazine (eliminating the exclamation mark). Troy May took over in 2006. OutNow was forced to stop printing in 2009 during the Great Recession.

South Bay Queer & Asian

SBQA pride 2009

In a history written in 2017 about the founding of the South Bay Queer and Asian, Roger Chow remembers meeting Dino Ago in the fall of 1991 to discuss the need for a gay Asian support group in the South Bay. After some planning, on February 19, 1992, the first meeting of the group met at the offices of the Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), a large and influential Asian-American non-profit social service organization in San Jose. Three people were in attendance: Roger, Dino, and a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News. Despite a slow start, they continued to meet weekly as their membership grew. According to Roger, they were the first gay Asian group in the South Bay.

Their name changed over time, first being the “AACI group,” then the Asian, Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Alliance, or ALBGA, then finally taking the name of South Bay Queer and Asian, or sbQA, right before the Gay Pride Parade in June, 1994. Initially AACI provided the facilitators for the group sessions, but the counselors were constantly changing, so the group decided to separate from AACI and transfer to the Billy DeFrank Center in order to develop its own leadership. They have remained at the DeFrank Center and helped raise money for its operations since.

Roger remembers what an adrenaline rush it was in creating the group. It was founded on the idea of creating a safe space for the pan-Asian community to receive support and counseling, along with help in dealing with family, financial, immigration, and mental health issues. There is also an sbQA scholarship fund to help LGBTQ+ Asian-American students from local high schools go to college.

In 1994, Roger Chow attended his first Pride parade and met a young Japanese man. Seeing he was distraught, Chow approached him and asked what was wrong. The man had just been disowned by his family for coming out. This young man was one of a few that Chow met over his years at sbQA who were disowned by his family, and it was crushing.

As Roger writes, there was much variation in the session topics, from coming out, relationships, AIDS 101, dating, etc., mixed in with “Learning to Dance the Samba.” They did theme nights, potlucks where everyone was encouraged to prepare specific ethnic food (Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Indonesian were popular). They went to see movies: “The Crying Game” and “My Beautiful Launderette” as well as attended the Asian American Film Festival and the Lesbian Gay Film Festival in San Francisco. They saw “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” marched in the Gay Pride parades in San Francisco and then in San Jose, walked in the Santa Clara County AIDS Walk, learned about safe sex and HIV, and had members who served on the Santa Clara County Commission on HIV/AIDS. They skied, camped out and had many meals together and established the tradition of their top three annual gatherings: Chinese Lunar New Year (Tet), Thanksgiving and Christmas (Holiday) potluck dinners.

sbqa 1 picnic
South Bay Queer & Asian at the annual picnic event together
sbqa picnic
South Bay Queer & Asian at the annual picnic event together

The annual summer picnic is a huge family-friendly event for members and their friends and family, offering a great opportunity to meet people across the LGBTQ+ community. Other events include Thanksgiving dinner, a Holiday Party in the winter, and Chinese Lunar New Year. Thanksgiving dinner is a potluck event for members of sbQA and other LGBTQ+ Asian groups throughout the Bay Area. Some years, the GAPA Men’s Chorus from San Francisco performs. Chinese Lunar New Year is a huge event where the community shares celebrating the New Year together.

sbqa pride 2009
South Bay Queer & Asian at Pride in 2009
sbqa pride
South Bay Queer & Asian participating in Pride, including Kyle Matsumoto Byrch and Gabrielle Antolovich

As in any organization, membership crises can occur. As Roger recalls, one controversy that erupted centered around if participation should be limited to Asians only. The first time around the debate was settled by having a majority of the planning group be Asian or of Asian descent. The second time the issue arose it was decided that since there were many groups for the “majority community” and only a few distinctively for gay Asians, they wanted their “rap” meetings closed. All of their social or other social functions would always remain “open to all.” Thus ended their second membership crisis.

In an August 2020 conversation with Ed Tang, who joined the group in 2005, and interim president Kyle Matsumoto-Burch, they talked about the more pressing issues for gay Asians, many which revolve around immigration and the threat of being deported. As Kyle said, “There is always that idea in the back of your mind that you’re going to have to go back to your country of origin, which means you have to go back to your family. There is this piece of you that might be okay with yourself being gay and maybe you’re living the life now, but eventually you’ll have to go back and conform to how it is back home. That is what is in the back of some people’s minds.”

One young man, the only son of a Chinese family, had a difficult time coming out to his parents. After a rap session, he asked their chairperson, Jerry Wang, to give him guidance, desperate to find a solution. A few years later, his parents came to the U.S., and he invited them to meet members of sbQA. Once they met others in the LGBTQ+ community, they realized that they were human beings too, and not too “out there.” They were concerned about grandchildren, so sbQA leaders explained how their son could have a family, including options like surrogacy. In 2019, this young man’s first child was born, and his parents stayed in the U.S. to help their son and his young family.

Tied into that, the issue with H1B visas looms and of not getting theirs renewed. “It’s not just a matter of leaving the culture, or leaving their friends, but it’s losing a job,” said Kyle. “If they haven’t established themselves in their home country, it’s going to be difficult for them to get a job because ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.'”

Just as creating a safe space for queer Asian Americans was a hallmark from the beginning for sbQA, so it continues to be today. Ed talked about how in the gay community there can be a problem of Asian fetishization. The older generation in sbQA is protective of the younger generation, making sure they have someone to turn to if they have any issues. He was always very tense when he was the organizer of an event. “I keep looking, watching to make sure nothing goes wrong because there are certain individuals who are very aggressive. I really look out for them to make sure that they do not go overboard. As people begin to feel comfortable coming to our events, they will bring their friends. That’s what happened with our annual picnic. The year I first attended in 2005 there were like 30 plus, and now it’s about 160 people. It’s a big change. Once people feel safe, they will come and they will bring their friends.”

“I used to work with foster care children and I would have to fight with the DA to get foster kids placed with gay families.” Ed Tang

sbqa tee
sbQA tee shirt

sbQA has two main issues when it comes to the future. First is recruiting more women into leadership roles. Kyle is pleased that a woman is now vice president of the group. The second is passing the baton from generation to generation and mentoring one another on how to run a civic service group. Roger, Ed and Kyle all understand how important it is for sbQA to actively recruit younger members.

Kyle believes the legacy of sbQA is this creation of a network of individuals who are very helpful to one another. “With sheltering in place, a lot of the work that sbQA has been doing is offering support to people who are isolated. That’s why we have these zoom meetings. But we’re also more active on Facebook now where people can log in at any time and be able to talk to anybody pretty much at any time. So there’s more availability now. Our network offers a lot of support to different people for different reasons.”

Read more about sbQA. You can also visit their website. 

“Some folks take years to come into the meeting. They will show up to the Billy DeFrank Center and stay outside and not go in until they have the confidence to.” — Kyle Matsumoto-Burch


grupo prolatino pride

The first meeting of ProLatino was held in February 1992 at the Billy DeFrank Center. Thirteen people attended. The group formed out of the need for a safe environment for gay Latinos to meet and discuss their community, health, and HIV/AIDS. J Alejandro (Alex) Campos Vidrio was the first president of the group, and Omar Nunez was vice-president.

Alex organized meetings every other Tuesday, asking participants to bring a new person with them at each meeting. The group grew from 13 to 27, then 38, and kept going from there. Eventually, they couldn’t fit in the original meeting rooms. They moved to the main ballroom in the Billy DeFrank Center’s Stockton Avenue location. Sixty people came to each meeting and participated in a variety of events.

Although forming ProLatino was a huge step in the direction of healing the LGBTQ+ Latino community, Alex’s goal of creating a safe environment was still not met. Working with Esperanza Garcia Walters, they wrote a grant proposal to host a retreat for the LGBTQ+ Latino community, which they received. The first retreat was held at a Catholic center in Mission San Juan Bautista with 30 gay men participating. Discussions included breaking down institutionalized and cultural homophobia, and the layers of growing up gay in a community that rejected them. They heard stories like being dragged by a horse through their hometowns in Mexico for being gay, or wanting to commit suicide because of their sexuality. These were shared in a safe space with a focus on healing. The retreat was so successful that over time they offered as many retreats as they could afford, which is what Alex had set out to accomplish.

The initial years were very busy. In 1993 they were invited to be part of the San Jose gay parade, the first Latino group to march in it. Members who did drag were embraced as a way to show that no one from any part of the LGBTQ community was excluded. ProLatino worked with other LGBTQ organizations to be more welcoming of the Latino community. At ARIS, for example, they worked to create the group “Entre Hombres” for gay Latino men who were HIV positive. They produced information about AIDS in Spanish, the only such literature available.

Alex remembers the Latino community had the idea that if you were gay, it makes you part woman, which makes you less than a man. “This idea makes you feel and think that you don’t deserve much, but ProLatino broke through those barriers,” he said. Alex made sure to reach out to other groups, including Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and others. “Our group felt safe because it wasn’t led by a white man–it was led by peers in the community,” he said.

In 1996, the group became a 501(c)(3) with a board of directors and co-chairs to run the organization. Omar Nunez was one of only two people who remained active with the group from the time it formed in 1992 until it went out of existence around 2011/2012. He remembers the retreats fondly. “They were open to everyone who wanted to attend, and people came from all over the Bay Area. Many of the men who attended were immigrants who only spoke Spanish. The retreats created a safe space for them that they had never experienced. It was very empowering.”

The workshops put on by ProLatino were very popular. They provided a place separate from the bars where people could get to know each other. “There was a tremendous void for the Latino community,” said Omar. “Here we were, almost a majority of the population, and there was nothing for us. ProLatino filled that void. It provided social and cultural programs, along with AIDS prevention services. Along with retreats, we did exhibits, education, art, theater, and parties. I’d say we had a couple hundred people a year attend our programs, resulting in well over a thousand gay Latinos connecting to our group.”

“It was an interesting and wonderful time,” said Omar. “People were ready and willing to do something for their community. It was a very unique period. I haven’t seen that type of community spirit since. It may never happen again.”

In 2005, Omar ran the program “Vida y Salud” (Life and Health) for gay Latino men with HIV.

In 2010, he was hired at the Santa Clara County’s PACE Clinic, a county-run clinic for HIV/AIDS patients. As a Community Health Outreach Specialist, he does outreach for the clinic, education for new patients, and interpretation services for doctors.

In 2000, with the support of Miquel Perez, David Castro was elected president of ProLatino. He remembers it as a tough time to get program funding because of the stiff competition for dollars. Since ProLatino had become a non-profit, they were able to receive grants from the state to provide HIV/AIDS services to the Spanish-speaking community. “Neil Christie was very supportive of us and he wrote a request for funding for a new support group,” David said. The center, which would become the Neil Christie Living Center after Neil passed away from AIDS, is where ProLatino  began to have educational programs for the Spanish-speaking community. Eventually, due to lack of funding, The Health Trust began to manage the center.

 The blending of ProLatino as a social group and the non-profit “Grupo ProLatino de San Jose” proved to be problematic, especially since David was advocating for both. Eventually, the non-profit lost its financing and no longer had money to pay staff. David then left the board and moved to Arizona in 2005 where he attended college and got a BA in Spanish and English translation and interpretation and continued to work on his master’s degree.

David has fond memories of the services that ProLatino provided to the Spanish-speaking community. “I used to get calls from married men with children who learned they were HIV positive, and it was difficult for them to handle their personal life. They only spoke Spanish so they didn’t know which way to go or what to do, and many wanted to commit suicide. I would meet with them after work and we would talk for hours about everything that was going on. I would eventually get them services, and I felt very good about that.”

Alejandro Campos

alejandro 1

In the late 1980s, J Alejandro (Alex) Campos Vidrio was a 21-year-old gay Mexican college student at San Jose. Like most Latinos, he grew up in a homophobic community, where he found that the stigma of being gay and the stigma of HIV was widespread enough for him not to come out. One of his friends had been in a relationship with someone who tested positive for HIV, so he accompanied him to the free clinic for an HIV test.

At the time, Alex knew nothing of the disease. In a counseling session, a nurse asked him a series of questions to determine if he was at risk. Before that, Alex had not told anyone he was gay, but when the nurse asked the question, he confirmed his sexuality. Because he was gay, this put him in the high risk group for HIV, so he took the test.

Two weeks later, he arrived at the clinic alone to receive his results: he was negative. The visit was so short that he stopped the nurse from leaving the appointment to ask her how he could help his Latino community get informed about HIV and learn how to protect themselves. The nurse explained there was no program for that at the time and suggested he get involved in creating options for his community. So he began volunteering. It was there that he met nurse Esperanza Garcia Walters and nurse Maria who would assist him in spreading awareness to the Latino LGBTQ community.

Alex’s first volunteer event was at Stanford University’s Walk for AIDS. Although he was there to help, he kept a distance between himself and the leaders with HIV, still scared of attracting the stigma of HIV. The walk, and how many people participated in it, made an impact on him.

Alex began attending a meeting of gay men in the Latino community at Club St. John on Mondays. Over time, he brought condoms and pamphlets and offered HIV counseling. Outside the meetings, participants didn’t even acknowledge each other for fear of being identified as gay.

At that time, Alex began seeing a Catholic Latino. One weekend he joined him on a retreat, which emphasized that participants were in a safe environment and would be protected by their peers and a higher power. The retreat changed his worldview: He wanted that kind of space for the gay Latino community to gather.

After he returned, he approached the Billy DeFrank Center, asking to host a gay Latino community night. They quickly turned him down, saying he was too young and not serious enough. He kept trying. Through his volunteering at the clinic, Esperanza Garcia Walters invited him to have dinner at an HIV patient’s home. He became close friends with the couple, and the dinner became a weekly gathering of friends. Alex and others fixed up the house, making it brighter, more comfortable, so it felt like a safe space. They called him “Chispa,” meaning “spark,” because he made them feel more alive.

Alex continued to pass out literature and condoms, attempting to connect with his community. His efforts were met with resistance; he was kicked out of many clubs and restaurants for doing so. He attended a meeting at the Billy DeFrank Center, voicing concerns that literature wasn’t available in Spanish for the Latino community, that they had neither a safe place to congregate nor resources away from the public. The DeFrank Center finally offered him space on Monday nights. Campos made a flyer inviting folks to “come and share with us,” as a way around using stigmatizing words like “gay” or “HIV.”

For the first meeting in 1992, Alex made 25 folders with pamphlets of information, condoms, and other resources. Thirteen people showed up, beating his own expectations. Attendees asked him to hold another meeting, so he spoke to Mark and was approved. The meetings were scheduled every other Tuesday. Every person attending committed to bring one more person with them to each meeting. This was the beginning of ProLatino.

In 1998, Alex decided to step down from ProLatino in order to take care of himself. He moved to San Francisco and joined the HIV Prevention Working Group of the State of California, traveling across the state, gathering data and analyzing trends in the virus’s spread.

In 1999, Alex went on vacation to Hawaii and according to him “never left.” He attended the University of Hawaii and worked at the School of Medicine as a director of the Pre-Health Career Corps. Due to the pandemic, he has not been working since March 2020.


One of Alejandro Campos’s proudest moments working with ProLatino came while attending a conference with the Department of Education in Hawaii in 2011. He learned about LLEGO’s (National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization) opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community and attended a workshop about retreats. The Hawaiian group cited what they learned about retreats from a San Francisco group, which they learned from a Bay Area local, who turned out to be Campos. This moment validated all the work he did through ProLatino. His ideals had spread throughout the country, even making it to Hawaii. — Alejandro Campos

Our Paper/Your Paper (1982-1995)

our paper your paper

In the wake of Lambda News’ worsening prospects, Our Paper/Your Paper was first published in September 1982 by Lambda News alumni Steve Century, David DeLong, Al Bonvouloir, Winn Crannell, Johnie Staggs, and Rosalie ‘Nikki’ Nichols. Seeking to define the gay suburban communities of the South Bay, Our Paper/Your Paper was intended to offer a platform distinct from the gay press of San Francisco, which dominated the entire Bay Area in the years prior.

Battle Against HIV/AIDS

battle hiv aids booklet

On June 5, 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newsletter Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published a story about five young, previously healthy gay men who had come down with a rare lung infection, pneumocystis pneumonia. This was the first public mention of what the CDC would name in just over a year the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The AIDS epidemic had begun in the United States.

Karl Vidt, who became a prominent local HIV/AIDS advocate—including a multi-year term as chair of the Santa Clara County World AIDS Day committee—said that during 1981-82 people in Santa Clara County thought AIDS was “something affecting people in San Francisco.”

A crisis emerges

In 1983 that attitude changed rapidly. AIDS arrived in Santa Clara County with the first diagnosis being confirmed by the public health department in April. The first signs of AIDS-related fear followed shortly afterwards.

The Santa Clara County Public Health Department’s AIDS Program was formed in 1983 to conduct community education. Utilizing a small grant from the state, the team began to educate people in jails, gay bars, and elsewhere. They also distributed condoms. In November, Santa Clara County obtained its first state funding for AIDS.

In 1985, the first HIV tests became available and the Public Health Department opened Santa Clara County’s first HIV clinic. Numbers were climbing: 53 deaths, 148 people living with HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Marty Fenstersheib took on the difficult role of telling people they were HIV positive. In a 2012 San Jose Business Journal interview, he recalled the reactions of those earliest patients, “They would run out, bang doors, sometimes they’d cry, sometimes they’d scream. It was horrible.”

In January 1986, BAYMEC, led by BAYMEC co-founder Ken Yeager, successfully secured the support of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to make a substantial commitment to funding AIDS-related services. Even as the County was facing tight budget times, they were committing critical dollars to AIDS services. Yeager was also named chair on the new Santa Clara County AIDS Task Force. The epidemic, and the lack of an adequate government response to it, was becoming the dominant issue in the LGBTQ community.

Life expectancy from diagnosis to death was around two years. People got sick and died very fast. Tens of thousands of families learned for the first time that their sons were gay only after they became sick. Often parents had to simultaneously come to grips with their son’s sexuality and their deaths.

The total death count continued to climb from 1986 to 1990: 96, 172, 265, 296, 433.

As the 1980s came to a close, the death toll from AIDS continued to rise, reaching 124 new deaths in Santa Clara County in 1989. By 1990, total deaths reached 433 with more than a thousand people living with HIV/AIDS.

Dark times

The early 1990s were some of the darkest times of the AIDS epidemic. Death tolls continued to increase locally and nationally. 1993 and 1994 were the years of highest deaths in Santa Clara County: 219 in 1993 and 220 in 1994.

AIDS patients continued to die at a rapid pace. At the end of 1994, the Public Health Department produced an analysis of the first 10 years of the epidemic in the county. It revealed that through 1990 more than 90% of individuals diagnosed with AIDS had died within the same year. In both 1983 and 1986, every single individual in Santa Clara County died the same year they were diagnosed with AIDS.

Thankfully, 1995 would bring some hope for HIV/AIDS sufferers. A medical breakthrough, whose impact continues to be felt today, dramatically transformed an AIDS diagnosis from a likely death sentence to a serious but manageable health condition.

Finally, a breakthrough

Public pressure and the growing death toll from AIDS led the Food and Drug Administration to approve the protease inhibitor Saquinavir for use outside of clinical trials in June 1995. The era of the AIDS cocktail had begun. It would not become widely used in the U.S. until 1996, but the earliest results were extremely promising.

By 1997 the full effects of the “cocktail” were becoming apparent to public health officials in Santa Clara County as the year-end statistics showed that only 67 people died of AIDS-related causes. That is a drop of almost 50% compared to the previous year.

Almost overnight, HIV/AIDS went from being a near-certain death sentence to a manageable health condition if diagnosed and treated. This change was extremely welcome after more than a decade of darkness, when friends and loved ones got sick, wasted away, and then died with blinding speed.

From 1984 when the first AIDS deaths were reported in the county to the end of 2017, there had been a total of 2,498 deaths from AIDS. A tragic loss.

While HIV/AIDS has been a treatable condition for almost a quarter-century, it is still a health crisis that impacts thousands in our community.

African-American and Hispanic residents continue to be disproportionately impacted, with rates among African-Americans more than four times higher than rates among non-Hispanic Whites.

We have come so far since those early dark days. But much work still needs to be done.

For help with HIV/AIDS or to volunteer, visit