One grins knowingly at a friend over the camera’s shoulder, caught up in the joy of the moment. Another strikes an imposing pose in a pink beard. A third fixes the camera with an inscrutable gaze, daring us to ask a forbidden question. These are three of the iconic photographs of drag queens taken by San Francisco photographer Roz Joseph (1926–2019) that will be on display from September 21, when the GLBT Historical Society unveils an online selection of images drawn from its 2015 exhibition “Reigning Queens: The Lost Photos of Roz Joseph.”
Joseph, who passed away in December of last year, moved to San Francisco in 1970. Her series of remarkable photographs documenting the city’s drag balls of the 1970s was rediscovered when she donated her work to the GLBT Historical Society in 2010. As we put the finishing touches on the online show, board members and drag performers Nick Large and Kyle Levinger share their reflections on the photographs.
Nick Large: Looking at these photographs, many of them depicting drag queens associated with San Francisco’s Imperial Court, causes me to reflect on how much drag has changed in the past 40 years and even in my own lifetime. When I first started doing drag, I had never heard of RuPaul’s Drag Race. There were no makeup tutorials on YouTube, and you could get your entire look locally. My first drag purchase at Forever 21 was a sleeveless fake-leather jacket, which at the time represented $30 of the total sum of $150 I had in my bank account. It’s easy to forget that in the grand scheme of things, the existence of Drag Race is a very recent phenomenon.
The “lost” photographs of Roz Joseph are a reminder of earlier times. Joseph’s photos represent a moment when drag was more a form of expression than a competition. As the photographs document, San Francisco’s thriving drag community is decades old. Many people came together and formed their own families through the medium of drag, even though they were sometimes shunned by the larger LGBTQ community. I wonder what these queens of days gone by would think if they witnessed a drag performance today. What would they say we have gained, and lost? What advice and stories would they have for us? In the age of COVID-19 and online streaming shows, I wonder how we can replicate that feeling of family-building in a virtual world.
Kyle Levinger: In 2020, many members of the LGBTQ community are unaware of or uninterested in the Grand Ducal Court and Imperial Court here in San Francisco. Roz Joseph’s photographs transport us back to an era when the Courts were key in helping to shape the LGBTQ community. Drag queens were central in the fight for equality, and the Courts played a vital role in founding and supporting nonprofit organizations to fight AIDS, feed the hungry and meet many other community needs. The Ducal and Imperial Courts also served as families for people when their relatives turned their backs. Today, the Courts do not have the same appeal as they once did. As acceptance of the LGBTQ community continues to broaden and drag becomes an increasingly popular form of entertainment, they have had difficulty attracting and maintaining membership. How can the Ducal Court and Imperial Court adapt to remain relevant in the community?
NOTE: “Reigning Queens: The Lost Photos of Roz Joseph” opens on September 21 on the GLBT Historical Society’s website.
Nick Large is a member of the society’s board of directors and regularly performs as Kristi Yummykochi at the Lookout.
Kyle Levinger is a member of the society’s board of directors and performs as Kylie Minono, who was Grand Duchess 39 of the Grand Ducal Court.