Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Sarria's activism recalled
a year after death


San Francisco's Openhouse agency organized a panel to remember and honor gay community leader Jose Sarria on the first anniversary of his death. On the panel, Gerard Koskovich, left, from the GLBT Historical Society, tells of how Sarria's role has been overlooked by historians. Others on the panel, from left, are Galilea, friend and Absolute Empress XLI; friend Robbie Robinson; Juliet Demeter, project archivist at the GLBT Historical Society and archivist for the Jose Sarria Papers; Marlena, Absolute Empress XXV; and moderator Donna Sachet, Absolute Empress XXX. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Long before queer activists marched and chanted down the streets of San Francisco, Jose Sarria lived his life as an out, proud gay man.

On the one-year anniversary of his death last August 19 at the age of 90, LGBT leaders and others paid tribute to Sarria as a packed crowd filled the second floor auditorium of San Francisco's LGBT Community Center for "Honoring Our Hero, Remembering Jose Julio Sarria."

It was standing room only, with many members of the Imperial Court System, for which he laid the groundwork, appearing in full regalia. Co-founding the Imperial Court System was another of Sarria's many accomplishments. The Imperial Court is now a goodwill ambassador for the community and has raised much-needed funds for HIV related causes.

Sarria was a trailblazer. During the 1950s, he was a popular drag performer at the Black Cat, a North Beach gay bar that closed in 1964. In addition to addressing serious issues through humor, Sarria warned his audience to be wary of police raids and harassment. The Black Cat became a safe haven for many young gay men at a time when being gay was considered a sickness and a crime. Sarria mentored many of them, instilling in them a sense of pride. He taught them to embrace who they were. Sarria closed his shows with his signature song, "God Save Us Nelly Queens."

In 1961 Sarria kicked down another closet door when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He was the first openly gay political candidate in United States history. Though he didn't win, he received thousands of votes, proving that an LGBT person could be a viable candidate.

Eve Vol Lution, a royal crown princess and Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, spoke to the Bay Area Reporter regarding her admiration for Sarria.

"He was a trailblazer and quite a character," she said. "If my life could be half as rich as the experiences he had, I'd be a wealthy person."

Other attendees were also moved by the tribute.

"I'm interested in all the people who made sacrifices for people like me," said Jake Roberts, 35. "My life would not be as easy as it is were it not for people like Jose Sarria."

Gay District 9 Supervisor David Campos said he drew inspiration from Sarria's legacy.

"As a gay Latino man Jose has a special place in my heart," Campos said as he addressed the crowd. "Here you had this Latino gay man who in 1961 had the courage to challenge the establishment."

Proclamations honoring Sarria posthumously were awarded from gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener.

"You can't have enough love at City Hall for Jose," Wiener said. "Can you believe that the San Francisco police escorted Jose at her funeral? We will never forget her."

The evening's tribute also served as a benefit for Openhouse, an organization for LGBT seniors. After a short video tribute to Sarria, B.A.R. society columnist and Empress XXX Donna Sachet moderated an onstage panel discussion.

"Before Ellen, before Harvey, there was Jose," Sachet said, referring to daytime TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. "Icon is a great word for him."

Seated across the podium were panelists Robbie Robinson, Empress XXV Marlena, Empress XLI Galilea, historian Gerard Koskovich, and Juliet Demeter.

Robinson recalled arriving in San Francisco in 1957. He was 21 years old.

"You couldn't be gay, you couldn't have sex, but at the Black Cat you felt like a human being," he said. "It brings a tear to remember how this little man made me feel like a human being. In 1957 it meant a great deal."

Marlena spoke of the 1964 formation of the Tavern Guild. It was started to help the community fend of the police raids, which were common in gay bars at that time. Sarria was a Tavern Guild co-founder.

"We need to stand tall, to fight for our rights, but to do it with dignity and class," Marlena said. "Jose taught us who we are. Everyone on this stage and all of you are here because of him."

Demeter, an archivist with the GLBT Historical Society, spoke of the many artifacts that the society obtained from Sarria's life. She said that they had 130 boxes, filled with biographical materials, articles and interviews, costumes, a little bit of film footage, and more. Some of these artifacts are now on display at the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18 Street, in the Castro.

Koskovich emphasized the importance of teaching younger LGBT people the life stories which preceded their own.

"If you tell a good story and provide a good tidbit, people are interested," he said. "We have to get these stories passed on to the next generation. The Imperial Court System was the first sign of a visible gay movement, but it's been invisible to the larger gay movement, and unjustly so."

Also known as Empress I, The Widow Norton, Sarria, a World War II veteran, was buried in Colma last year with full military honors. His gravestone stands near that of Joshua Norton, a colorful San Francisco character who in 1859 declared himself Emperor of These United States and Protector of Mexico. During her reign with the Imperial Court, Sarria's title was Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose I.

The discussion concluded as the panel and audience stood up and sang "God Save Us Nelly Queens" amidst laughter, tears and hugs.


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