Gay icon Jose Sarria dies at 90

  • by Cynthia Laird
  • Wednesday August 21, 2013
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Jose Julio Sarria, a legendary San Francisco drag queen who made history as the first openly gay person to seek political office in America and founded the Imperial Court system, died Monday, August 19. He was 90.

Mr. Sarria had been ill for several months and died at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was in San Francisco last December to be recognized by the Imperial Court on the occasion of his birthday.

Last year Mr. Sarria told the Bay Area Reporter that he was diagnosed with a rare cancer in the adrenal glands. He had declined chemotherapy treatment.

Local officials praised Mr. Sarria.

"He provided inspiration," gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano told the Bay Area Reporter. "He was one of the people who lit the fuse �" at great risk to himself. He's just irreplaceable."

In a statement, gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said LGBTs of all stripes lost a "dear friend and fearless community leader who will forever hold a place in our hearts."

"When Jose threw his hat into the ring for San Francisco supervisor more than 50 years ago, he became one of the first to publicly proclaim that there is no reason, constitutional or otherwise, to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people first-class citizenship, respect, and dignity under the law," Leno said.

He added, "Jose's visionary and legendary leadership helped build the foundation for our successful, modern-day LGBT civil rights movement. His sly humor and wicked wit disarmed nearly every adversary."

Stuart Milk, the openly gay nephew of slain former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was the first out gay elected official in the city, also praised Mr. Sarria.

"He paved the way for my uncle, Harvey Milk, to run for public office by being the first openly gay man to put his name on the 1961 ballot and was right there to support Harvey's first campaign in 1973," Milk said in a statement.

Milk said that Mr. Sarria led an "extraordinary" life.

"For the International Court system he was a guardian and an inspiration. For anyone who felt like they were different he was a defender of our dreams," Milk said. "He taught us how to turn an idea into action, how to wear a tiara, and how to laugh and ultimately he taught us how to lift up and nourish a marginalized community."

"We will forever keep Jose in our history books and in our hearts," Milk added.

Jose Sarria, in drag as the Widow Norton, went to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma in February 2011 during her annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of her late husband, Emperor Joshua Norton.(Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Known for his years of performing at the famous Black Cat gay bar in North Beach in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Sarria entertained customers in drag as he sang satirical versions of popular songs while beseeching gay patrons to come out, imploring them that "united we stand, divided they catch us one by one."

Thomas E. Horn, publisher emeritus of the B.A.R ,. said he first met Mr. Sarria when he was an entertainer at the Black Cat in the 1960s.

"She was an inspiration to us all," Horn said, referring to Mr. Sarria's drag persona. "She was always in the forefront of the gay rights movement, whatever the risk to her. And she definitely never put up with any nonsense."

It was indeed a different era, one of police raids and sting operations. Mr. Sarria himself was arrested for solicitation at the St. Francis Hotel, leading him to abandon his dream of being a teacher.

But Mr. Sarria really shook up San Francisco's political establishment in 1961 when he decided to run for supervisor. It was the first time an out gay person had run for elective office. The reaction was swift. During his bid Mr. Sarria had to threaten to sue the local Democratic Party after it tried to keep him from running as a Democratic candidate.

The Democrats relented, but fearful that Mr. Sarria could win one of the six seats up for grabs that fall, party leaders recruited two-dozen people to enter the race. Mr. Sarria ended up in ninth place on Election Night.

Last year during a celebration honoring Mr. Sarria by the current board, gay Supervisor David Campos offered him an apology.

"I am sorry the city government didn't treat you well and the police harassed you," Campos told Mr. Sarria, who had come to the ornate board chambers for the commendation. "The city that didn't treat you well at that time loves you and honors you today."

Mr. Sarria said at the time that he believed it was a mistake for him not to run in the following election as he likely would have won. Winning, however, wasn't his goal at the time.

"I wanted to prove I, as a citizen of San Francisco, had the right to help govern the city," Mr. Sarria said. "Once I achieved that, I moved on to the next problem. I think I made a mistake. Had I run again, I would have won."


Imperial Court

Mr. Sarria went on to raise money for the Tavern Guild, a business association for gay bar owners, and the Society for Individual Rights, one of the first gay rights groups.

He gave himself the titular title "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose I, The Widow Norton," in homage to Joshua Norton, an eccentric city resident who in 1859 declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

In doing so Mr. Sarria also laid the groundwork for the Imperial Court system, now an international charitable group that raises money through drag shows. Mr. Sarria was the San Francisco chapter's first empress.

According to the Imperial Court's program for the 2001 Coronation, on October 31, 1965 at the Winterland Ice Rink, the Tavern Guild held its third Beaux Arts Ball.

"A message had been sent by Norton I. He wanted a wife of state (Royal Empress de San Francisco) to reign in the realm of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Not this imposter who had been appointed as 'Emperor Jose Norton' at Halloween at the Black Cat."

The program goes on to state that attendees at the ball accepted this change of title to Royal Empress de San Francisco, Jose I.

With that, Mr. Sarria became San Francisco's first empress. For several years, the Imperial Court only had empresses. Then, in 1972, Marcus Hernandez became the Emperor I After Norton. Hernandez, who died in 2009, was the B.A.R.'s longtime leather columnist.

Mr. Sarria was born December 12, 1922 as the only child of Maria Delores Maldonado of Colombia and Julio Sarria of San Francisco. Mr. Sarria served in the U.S. Army during World War II, rising to the rank of staff sergeant prior to his discharge in 1947.

Michael Gorman, who wrote a book about Mr. Sarria, The Empress is a Man: Stories from the Life of Jose Sarria , said that growing up as the gay son of an unwed mother, Mr. Sarria "did not have the kind of background that screamed success in early 20th century America."

"Add to that the social and legal discrimination against gay people during the majority of his lifetime, and you have a man who began life with the cards stacked against him," Gorman said. "However, what always distinguished Jose from the crowd was an unquenchable hope in a better tomorrow and a street-wise creativity that few forces of oppression could successfully confront."

Mr. Sarria, Gorman said, "literally created his own world in which he was the empress of an Imperial Court that welcomed the outsiders and underdogs and gave them his own version of Camelot in which to live. Jose, for all his campy work as the entertainment at the notorious Black Cat Cafe in the city's North Beach neighborhood, never stopped reaching out to try and make the world a kinder gentler place for the downtrodden."

"Civil rights activists tend to be people who live large, but no activist in history can quite match the flair with which the Empress lived, loved, and worked," Gorman added. "We all owe him a debt."

Mr. Sarria received countless honors and awards. In 2006, after a campaign led by San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, and the International Court Council, the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro neighborhood as Jose Sarria Court, thus becoming the first openly gay man to have a city street named after him in San Francisco. (A portion of an alley off of Van Ness Avenue had previously been named for lesbian Alice Toklas.)

"San Francisco is recognized as the world's LGBT mecca and it's fitting that Jose Sarria is the first gay man to have a street named in his honor here," Dufty, who authored the legislation naming Jose Sarria Place in the Castro, said in a statement.

Mr. Sarria collected many LGBT historic documents during his life and materials from his collection comprise the Jose Sarria Papers at the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco.

Additionally, Mr. Sarria was honored by the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee with its Lifetime Achievement grand marshal title in 2005. A plaque outlining Mr. Sarria's contributions is embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the public library at 1 Jose Sarria Court.

In 2009 the state Assembly honored Mr. Sarria during an official celebration of LGBT Pride Month.

The Imperial Court announced that the services for Mr. Sarria would be held Friday, September 6 at 11 a.m. at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street. Viewing will be held Thursday, September 5 from 1 to 9 p.m. at Halsted N Gray-Carew and English Funeral Home, 1123 Sutter Street.

Following the funeral Mr. Sarria will be interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma. After that a reception will be held at the Lookout bar, 3600 16th Street.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Jose Julio Sarria Charitable Giving Fund. Checks should be sent in care of the Imperial Council, 584 Castro Street, PMB 469, San Francisco, CA 94114.