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

Online Extra: Political Notes:
Gay SF icon laid to rest


Right Reverend Marc Handley Andrus, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of California, prays with the casket of Jose Julio Sarria to close the Imperial State Funeral services for the Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose I, The Widow Norton.
(Photo: Rick Gerharter)
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Through tears, laughter, and many a chiffon veil, friends, family, and LGBT royalty celebrated the life and legacy of gay San Francisco icon Jose Julio Sarria at a funeral service and burial fit for a queen.

Roughly 1,000 people packed Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill Friday, September 6 to honor Sarria, who created the international charitable group the Imperial Court and was known as Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose I, The Widow Norton.

Sarria, who died August 19 at the age of 90, performed in drag at the famous Black Cat gay bar in North Beach in the 1950s and 1960s. When he ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1961, it marked the first time an openly LGBT person sought political office in the U.S.

"He not only fought for us to love who we want; he fought for our divine right to love ourselves," said close friend Joseph Castel, one of six speakers who recalled their time with, and thoughts of, Sarria over the years.

Sarria left detailed instructions for how he was to be remembered at the funeral. Members of the court system, who have raised millions of dollars for nonprofits over the decades, were informed to wear black mourning dress while the six pallbearers wore white gloves.

"He would look out and say, 'Mary, I haven't seen this many rhinestones since I got dressed this morning.' Actually, I am not sure he would say Mary; he was always calling people Louise," remarked Scott Lyons, 63, a friend and former roommate of Sarria's better known as Beverley Plaza, an emcee of the defunct drag cabaret club Finnochio's.

Speaking to other mourners seated nearby, Lyons said he found it "interesting" that Sarria's death came shortly after same-sex couples won federal marriage rights due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June. Yet there are still battles to be waged to win full equality for LGBT people, added Lyons, and "Jose would want the fight to go on."

Rainbow streamers hung from the ceiling of the nave of the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of California. The Right Reverend Marc Handley Andrus, Episcopal bishop of California, presided over the ceremony; among those in the processional was retired Anglican bishop of Utah, the Reverend Otis Charles, the first openly gay bishop of a Christian Church.

Among the dignitaries in attendance were former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos; Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi; Stuart Milk, the openly gay nephew of Harvey Milk; gay Treasurer Jose Cisneros and his partner, Human Rights Commissioner Mark Kelleher; and San Francisco homeless policy chief Bevan Dufty, who pushed to name a block of 16th Street in the Castro after Sarria when he served on the Board of Supervisors.

Living across the street from the signage for Jose Sarria Court, gay Castro resident Chris Paul, 34, attended the funeral to not only pay his respects but also learn about Sarria.

"I see his name all the time," said Paul. "It sounds like he was a community activist who led an exemplary life that I would like to learn from."

Also in attendance were gay San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and Scott Wiener. The two out leaders, along with Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, authored a resolution declaring last Friday to be "A Day of Remembrance Honoring the Life of Jose Julio Sarria" in the city and county of San Francisco.

Gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who raced back to Sacramento immediately following the ceremony as deadlines to pass legislation loomed, called Sarria the Rosa Parks of the LGBT community in his remarks during the funeral.

"We gather today in a cathedral fit for a queen and good enough for an empress," said Leno, who jokingly thanked the crowd for their "gowns, crowns, fighting for civil rights and your tax dollars, as the mayor has asked that all of you go out and shop."

He recounted one of Sarria's more famous lines – "There is nothing wrong with being gay; the crime is being caught" – referring to how for most of Sarria's adult life homosexuality was a criminal offense, viewed as a mental illness, and could get one fired from a job or evicted from their apartment.

"That one sentence encapsulates the harsh, cruel years Jose grew into manhood," said Leno. Yet, he added, Sarria fought back and "began to change the world."

Not only did Sarria break down political barriers with his historic supervisorial bid, he encouraged others to also seek public office. He supported his longtime friend, Maurice Gerry, when he entered politics after moving to upstate New York.

"From the Black Cat to the great cathedral, imagine that," marveled Gerry, who this year will retire after serving 25 years on the city council in the town of Liberty.

Following the nearly 90-minute service, roughly 500 people traveled to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma to bury Sarria next to the grave of Joshua Norton, an eccentric city resident who in 1859 declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. It was Norton who inspired Sarria to create the Imperial Court in the 1960s.

Once there Donna Sachet, the Bay Area Reporter's society columnist and the 30th Empress of San Francisco christened Heir Apparent to Empress Nicole the Great, and Cisneros presided over a 30-minute ceremony that included the Golden Gate Guards, holding the bear, leather, LGBT, city, state, and U.S. flags, and a rendition of taps as an American flag was ceremoniously removed from Sarria's coffin.

In its place was laid a rainbow flag, adorned on top with a sash, veil and tiara worn by Sarria. After being blessed by the San Francisco Night Ministry and several handfuls of dirt were poured over the coffin, the flag and other items were removed.

"We are going to lighten it up. This is where Jose loved to have fun after coronation," remarked Sachet, who performed a song titled "The Norton Family."

Written by Gail Wilson, it was a reworked rendition of the theme song for the television show The Addams Family. Then came a performance by Robert Sunshine and the Raindrops and the reading of three letters Sachet said Sarria had left for her.

They each contained advice for the crowd, including never forget Sarria, have fun, and be kind to each other. After a final prayer, the monarchs of San Francisco's Imperial Court each laid a white rose on the coffin.

Then the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Band performed "When the Saints Go Marching In" as Sarria's casket was laid to rest under sunny skies and cool ocean breezes. Sarria was buried with a Pride flag that had flown during this year's LGBT celebration, donated by the Pride Committee.

"Hip, hip, hooray" chanted the assembled mourners.


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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail

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