Palm Springs to honor drag icon José Sarria with a star

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 28, 2022
Share this Post:
José Julio Sarria dressed in full drag as Empress I the Widow Norton in 2011. Photo: Rick Gerharter
José Julio Sarria dressed in full drag as Empress I the Widow Norton in 2011. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The late drag icon José Julio Sarria will be inducted into the Palm Springs Walk of Stars this December. It will be the culmination of a monthslong tribute to the LGBTQ rights pioneer in the Southern California city.

On October 11, which also happens to be National Coming Out Day, the José Sarria Pop-Up Museum will open to the public inside Palm Springs' historic Welwood Murray Memorial Library. It is set to close December 14, three days after a gala 100th Jubilee celebration for Sarria is to be held at the library Sunday, December 11.

Gene Brake, who founded in 2016 the José Sarria Foundation, told the Bay Area Reporter the star will be unveiled December 12 near the Marilyn Monroe statue on Museum Way. The timing for the ceremony has yet to be finalized.

"I knew I wanted to do something for José's 100th birthday, and so it was sort of one of those things where I was walking down the street and saw the star for Marilyn Monroe. I knew José loved Marilyn Monroe, so I said, 'Hey, I need to get José in this!'" Brake, who chairs the foundation, told the B.A.R.

While the plans for the museum show and birthday party had been previously announced, this is the first time that Brake has publicly disclosed that he was able to get Sarria inducted into the Walk of Stars. He had initiated doing so last year and received notice September 12 that the selection committee had approved the star nomination for Sarria.

"I hope that he would be thrilled because, you know, one of his greatest worries was people were going to forget him," said Brake, 66, who with his husband splits part of the year living in Palm Springs and the rest residing in Spokane, Washington. "I made that one of my primary goals with the foundation, to make sure people trip over him literally everywhere."

Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton, a transgender woman, intends to be at the opening of the museum exhibit and hopes to preside over the star unveiling as mayor. Her mayoral term will end on December 15, and she will return to her City Council seat.

"I am absolutely thrilled that we are going to induct José into the Palm Springs Walk of Stars," Middleton told the B.A.R. "He is a legend across California, if not everywhere, but we in Palm Springs adore all of the work he did for our community."

According to the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the Walk of Stars, at least three other drag queens have been honored with a star. Alan "Alfie" Pettit, who performed as Arial Trampway, received one in 2016.

James Haake, who performs as Gypsy, received one in 2015. Brian Wanzek, known as Bella da Ball, was honored in 2013.

Sarria, who died in 2013 at the age of 90, was born in San Francisco though there is some discrepancy on his actual birthdate. He used the date December 12, 1922 and that is what is inscribed on his headstone at his burial plot.

But some records indicate Sarria was born on December 13, while several birth certificates that the foundation has in its collection have him being born a year later. The Online Archive of California says Sarria was born December 12, 1923 at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco.

Brake told the B.A.R. he is going by the date used on Sarria's headstone, as it was what Sarria used on his medical paperwork, for the basis of celebrating his 100th birthday this December. Thus, he has been pressing to have the star unveiling ceremony be held on December 12.

Famous for performing in drag

What is without dispute is that Sarria became famous in the 1950s performing in drag at the North Beach gay hangout the Black Cat Cafe. A veteran and prominent Latino leader, he made history in 1961 with his unsuccessful bid for a San Francisco Board of Supervisors seat. It marked the first time an out gay person had sought elected office in the U.S.

In 1965, Sarria founded the Imperial Court System in San Francisco, having proclaimed himself Empress I of San Francisco. It has since crowned scores of empresses, emperors, and other drag royalty while raising funds for charitable causes.

The court continues to be a major LGBTQ philanthropic group with chapters throughout North America. For years LGBTQ leaders have called for Sarria to be inducted into the California Hall of Fame and, several years ago, launched an effort to see him featured on a U.S. postal stamp.

Sarria had lived in Cathedral City, another LGBTQ enclave near Palm Springs, from 2000 to 2010, noted Brake. Thus, he is deserving of being recognized with a star, Brake told the B.A.R. during a September 26 phone interview as he was driving on Interstate 5 near Fresno en route to his home in Palm Springs.

The pop-up museum will feature Sarria's personal items, costumes, and memorabilia from his supervisorial campaign. It will also have a large focus on the imperial court and its history.

"My SUV is full of items," Brake said, that are to be installed in the coming days as part of the museum exhibit.

It will be accessible for free seven days a week during the library's normal operating hours. Volunteers should be on hand daily from 1 to 5 p.m., Brake said, to help answer attendees' questions.

Three films will also be screened on a rotating basis throughout the duration of the pop-up museum. One is director Jethro Patalinghug's 2018 documentary "50 Years of Fabulous" about the imperial council's history.

Another is the 2016 documentary "Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of José Sarria." The third is the 2020 documentary "Queen of the Capital," about a Washington, D.C. drag queen that features Sarria and the court system.

"I am very excited. If I died on December 16, I would die a happy man," joked Brake, who was crowned Founder Emperor 1 of the Imperial Court of the Alamo Empire in San Antonio, Texas.

The city of Palm Springs is donating the space for the museum exhibit, while the Sarria foundation needs to raise $25,000 to cover the various expenses related to it and the birthday events planned for December. The International Court Council and St John's Community Health each donated $5,000, while other donors have contributed smaller amounts so that roughly $15,000 has been raised to date.

For more information about the exhibit, birthday celebration in December, and to make a donation, click here.

Updated 9/28/2022to correct the spelling of Gene Brake's last name and to add the location where the star will be and the date of its unveiling.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.