"Coming Out," Joey Plaster tells 48 Hills, "originally referred to the act of being formally presented at drag balls that gay men patterned on respectable debutante balls." And in San Francisco, what balls they had!

Plaster curated one of San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society's current shows, "Reigning Queens," a series of shots taken of the '70s drag scene in SF. Through the photos on display, you can relive the heyday of the Imperial Court, an organization and a culture of parties and galas from the city of that era.

As the GLBT Historical Society tells us, "The court was founded in October 1965 at the Beaux Arts Ball, an annual fundraiser for the Tavern Guild, a local gay bar-owners association. Celebrated drag performer and gay activist José Sarria was named “queen” of the ball; in an imperial gesture, Sarria instead proclaimed herself “Empress of San Francisco.” The community accepted José’s decree, and the Imperial Court was born."


Sarria's Empress I was the "Widow Norton," a reference to the famed, self-proclaimed Emperor Norton I of San Francisco. And that legacy lives on.

“The photos help us appreciate the legacy of the Imperial Court, a charitable organization of drag royalty marking its 50th anniversary this year,” Plaster tells 48 Hills. "“Many of the queens pictured in the photos are past Empresses, Czarinas, and Baronesses who were instrumental in raising funds for the city’s gay social service and political organizations."

“Being a woman," said photographer Roz Joseph, whose primary subject was architecture, "no longer young, willing to listen, non-critical, unbiased, I made friends with these strangers." As the Chronicle recalls her words, she wrote that she "had access.”

But Joseph's camera, of course, was trained on performance already intended as art.

“What I do is social satire, in a sense," one queen, Ambi Sextrous, reportedly said. "I’m trying to throw people’s stereotypes in their faces."

Ambi Sextrous" " (circa 1976). Vintage color print on Kodak paper. Photo by Roz Joseph. The GLBT Historical Society via Facebook

These days, Plaster worries that an Imperial Court might not flourish as it once did in San Francisco, for economic and social reasons. Perhaps that's just added reason to revisit it.

“As San Francisco continues to gentrify," he concludes, "it’s also a good time to appreciate the incredible racial and economic diversity of the 1970's drag scene."

Reigning Queens: The Lost Photos of Roz Joseph, runs through March 20th at the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th Street

Related: Photos From Pioneering Activist Jose Sarria's Grand Drag Funeral at S.F.'s Grace Cathedral

"Untitled" c. 1976 by Roz Joseph, The GLBT Historical Society via Facebook