Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Supes set to vote on street name for drag queen


From left: Terence Kissack, Nicole Murray Ramirez, andDonna Sachet at Monday's hearing. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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The Board of Supervisors is expected to rename a block of 16th Street in honor of Jose Sarria, one of San Francisco's most famous drag queens, at its meeting Tuesday, January 31. Sarria, the first out gay man to run for political office in the United States and founder and first Empress of the Imperial Court System, will receive his very own court if the proposal passes.

The name change would designate 16th Street between Pond and Prosper streets as Jose Sarria Court and would only change the address of the Eureka Valley Harvey Milk Branch Library, on the west side of the street. It would mark the first time an out gay man received such an honor from the city.

A 1999 proposal to name a portion of Market Street after former Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first out gay man to win public office in the country, failed to win widespread support. The city did, that year, rename one block of Myrtle Street off of Van Ness Avenue after lesbian pioneer Alice B. Toklas.

The proposal for Sarria cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday, January 23 when the board's City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee approved it and sent it to the full board for final approval.

"Certainly, Jose is worthy of this recognition. It is hard to say for which achievement he deserves this," said Terence Kissack, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, at the hearing. "He created a new political constituency that has only grown in time. He made San Francisco what it is today – a vibrant, tolerant city."

"Let's honor a living, breathing man of honor," said Donna Sachet, herself an Empress, wearing a signature red-colored outfit with matching hat. "If it were not for Jose I would not be standing here today – at least not in this outfit."

A World War II veteran, Sarria fought at the Battle of the Bulge. Upon leaving the military, Sarria returned home and became a crusader for gay rights and fundraiser for the LGBT community. The San Francisco native ruled over the Black Cat Cafe in North Beach in the 1950s, performing drag shows and was known as the "Nightingale of Montgomery Street." Early on he petitioned police not to raid gay bars and was jailed several times on morals charges.

He ran for city supervisor in 1961 and founded the Imperial Court System over 40 years ago in 1965 when he took on the title of Empress Jose I. The philanthropic organization has raised millions worldwide for numerous charities and laid the groundwork for many of today's AIDS organizations. The court system now has more than 65 chapters in Canada, the United States, and Mexico and continues to raise money for worthy causes.

Sarria, 82, assumed the title of the Widow Norton after the 19th century San Francisco eccentric Joshua Norton, who proclaimed himself "Emperor of North America and Protector of Mexico" and printed his own money. Each year Sarria leads a processional to Norton's grave, in tribute to the one-of-a-kind character as well as those court members who have died of AIDS.

"Let's put the Widow Emperor Norton forever on the map," said Sean Martinfield, who lives near the library and remembers when, as a young closeted music student decades ago, he first met Sarria and sang at one of his shows.

The name change proposal has the backing of the city's gay political leaders, from state Senator Carole Migden and state Assemblyman Mark Leno to Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty. Dufty introduced the proposal late last year, and in December at the court system's 40th anniversary party, presented Sarria with a mockup of the street sign for Jose Sarria Court.

At Monday's hearing, Dufty said he wanted to honor Sarria for being "a vision of courage" when he took the risk of running as an out gay man and led the way for other LGBT people to enter into politics.

"Many people are not aware of who Jose was and how courageous an act that was at the time," said Dufty.

Nicole Murray Ramirez, Empress of San Diego and president of the International Court Council of the Imperial Court System, first approached Dufty with the street name change when he learned last year of a proposal being floated to rename the Bay Bridge after Norton. Ramirez, who is heir apparent to Sarria within the court system, said he wanted to bestow such a naming honor on Sarria.

"Jose is a historic figure not only in San Francisco but in the history of the LGBT movement. He is the Rosa Parks, the queen mother as it were, for the LGBT rights movement. Like Rosa Parks, Jose refused to be treated like a second-class citizen," said Ramirez, a San Diego city commissioner, who flew up to San Francisco to attend Monday's hearing. "Hundreds of openly gay politicians owe much to this man."

Ramirez said Sarria, who is now in Palm Springs and facing health problems, is very "humbled" by the proposal and, when he first learned of it in December, "told me it almost gave her a heart attack."

The name change idea has generated some opposition – about 20 people signed a petition against the idea and presented it at the hearing Monday. Jim Buckley said he does not mind seeing Sarria, whom he voted for back in 1961, honored, just not from having the city switch street names.

"Most people just feel the epidemic of street naming is stupid," said Buckley. "If you want to put up a memorial then reach into your own pockets and find some money to put up a plaque."

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, chair of the committee, disagreed, saying not only did he support renaming that stretch of 16th Street for Sarria, he would also like to see more city streets named after important people in San Francisco's history.

"It is extremely important to have a sense of place, something that grounds us. I don't find it stupid. In fact, it is very uplifting," said McGoldrick.

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