How San Francisco’s Drag Royalty Does Good, While Looking Fierce

12 min
Members of the Imperial Court pose at an exhibition opening at the Oakland Museum of California. (Photo: Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California)

San Francisco has always been the sort of place where people come to reinvent themselves in a big way. The trend goes back to Joshua Norton, the eccentric wheeler-dealer who declared himself emperor of the United States in 1859.

When San Francisco drag queen and political activist José Sarria declared himself the "Empress José I, The Widow Norton," in 1965, he wasn't just having fun with Norton's legacy.

As the founder of The Imperial Court, Sarria launched and presided over an entire movement that would not only support LGBTQ causes in a profound way over the more than five decades of its existence to date, but would also do it with lashings of bejeweled and sequined flair.

Learn about The Imperial Court in this episode of Bay Curious.

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Ten things to know about The Imperial Court:

  1. From its roots in 1960s San Francisco, today's Imperial Court extends to around 70 chapters across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
  2. Jose Sarria posing during a visit to the GLBT Historical Society in 2009.
    José Sarria poses during a visit to the GLBT Historical Society in 2009. (Gerard Koskovich)
  3. The San Francisco chapter raises between $50,000-$100,000 each year for a wide range of charities, including San Francisco Suicide Prevention and the Gay-Straight Alliance.
  4. For nearly three decades until it shuttered in 2013, Marlena's, a bar in Hayes Valley, was "ground zero" for Imperial Court activities in San Francisco.
  5. Empress Marlena (aka Gary Mclain) poses by the sign that used to hang above her bar. Marlena's was ground zero for the Imperial Court for close to three decades.
    Empress Marlena (aka Gary Mclain) poses by the sign that used to hang above her bar. Marlena's was ground zero for the Imperial Court for close to three decades. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
  6. The Imperial Court elects a new emperor and empress every February. Candidates run their election campaigns for about a month leading up to the election date.
  7. The results of the election are announced at the annual coronation, which is held at San Francisco's Design Center these days.
  8. There have been 52 empresses and 45 emperors to date.
  9. Alexis Miranda, Imperial Court Empress 33 and manager at Divas in The Tenderloin, hosts a regular weekly gathering of Imperial and Ducal Court members.
    Alexis Miranda, Imperial Court Empress 33 and manager at Divas in The Tenderloin, hosts a regular weekly gathering of Imperial and Ducal Court members. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
  10. Most Imperial Court royals hold down day jobs in addition to working hard weekends on behalf of The Imperial Court. Their main role is to raise money for their selected charities by helping out at events in their hometowns and further afield.
  11. As "The Mother Court," the San Francisco chapter is the most prestigious of the courts within the system.
  12. The grave of Jose Sarria at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma.
    The grave of José Sarria at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma.
  13. The Imperial Court is connected to several other LGBTQ organizations, including the Ducal Court and the Mr. and Miss Gay pageants.
  14. Sarria died at the age of 90 in 2013 and received a stately funeral at Grace Cathedral. He is buried next to Emperor Norton in Colma's Woodlawn Cemetery. The royal couple's graves are surrounded by those of other key Imperial Court royals.

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