CA Hall of Fame honor sought for gay icon

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday January 21, 2015
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Friends and admirers of Jose Julio Sarria, a gay man and drag queen who left a lasting impact on politics and the LGBT community, are seeking to have him inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

Created in 2006 by the California Museum, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his former wife, Maria Shriver, the Hall of Fame honors residents of the state who have made lasting contributions to society. Honorees receive the Spirit of California medal, and their accomplishments become part of the permanent record in the California State Archives.

The list of 90-plus individuals selected to date includes two lesbians and one gay man, as well as a female inductee who has had same-sex relationships but does not identify as lesbian or bisexual.

During his time in office since 2011, Governor Jerry Brown has not included any LGBT people among the three classes of inductees he has chosen for the hall. There was no induction ceremony in 2012 due to the Brown administration moving the induction ceremony from December to October.

"The governor has long valued the contributions of the LGBT community in California and public nominees will certainly continue to be considered," Brown spokesman Evan Westrup told the B.A.R. in an emailed response to questions.

LGBT advocates are hopeful that Brown will include Sarria among this year's group of honorees. They have recruited lesbian Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) to serve as honorary campaign chair of the effort.

"He was the first out gay candidate for public office, paving the way for so many of us over the years. He helped end raids of establishments that catered to LGBT people and helped move our community toward equal treatment under the law, and he founded the International Imperial Court System, which has raised millions of dollars for charity," Atkins said in a statement to the Bay Area Reporter. "And besides, even with Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, and Danielle Steele as inductees, the California Hall of Fame could always find room for a little more elegance."

Sarria, who died in 2013 at the age of 90, 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.

A San Francisco native, Sarria was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1947. Beginning in the 1950s, he rose to prominence with his cabaret shows at the Black Cat Cafe, a now defunct gay bar in the city's North Beach neighborhood. He would beseech the audience members to come out of the closet, telling them that "united we stand, divided they catch us one by one."

In 1965 Sarria created what became known as the Imperial Court System by crowning himself "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose I, The Widow Norton." The title was in homage to Joshua Norton, an eccentric city resident who in 1859 declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

The court system grew into a major fundraising mechanism for a wide variety of causes, from LGBT issues to caring for people living with HIV and AIDS. It now has chapters in 70 cities across the country as well as in Canada and Mexico.

As the International Imperial Court System �" and the Imperial Council of San Francisco �" celebrates its golden anniversary this year, its members decided it would be a fitting tribute for Sarria to be among the 2015 inductees into the California Hall of Fame.

"It is not only a salute to the gay community, but choosing him is a salute to the Latino community and a salute to World War II veterans," said San Diego resident Nicole Murray Ramirez, who was elected an empress of the Imperial Court in 1973 and currently holds the title of Queen Mother 1 of the Americas, Canada, United States, and Mexico.

Ramirez, who is serving as chair of the state campaign to induct Sarria, said doing so "shows we come in so many colors and backgrounds and just ... Jose was fabulous."

Gay former San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who led the effort to name a portion of a street in the city's gay Castro district after Sarria, the first gay man to be honored in such a way, said having a "heroic individual" like Sarria inducted into the Hall of Fame would be a fitting honor.

"I think it is awesome. Anyone who has heard Jose's story ... you just smile," said Dufty, now an adviser on homeless issues to Mayor Ed Lee.

Sarria would be the second gay leader from San Francisco in the Hall of Fame. In 2009 Schwarzenegger and Shriver chose the late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk as a member of the fourth class to be inducted.

They had selected tennis great Billie Jean King, an out lesbian, to be among the first class picked nine years ago. The biographies for both King and Milk posted on the California Museum's website mention their ties to the LGBT community.

Also among the inaugural group was astronaut Sally Ride, but her online bio does not mention that she came out as a lesbian upon her death in 2012.

The bio for another member of the first class, author Alice Walker, does not disclose that her lovers have included singer Tracy Chapman.

The 2015 induction ceremony has yet to be scheduled but should be held in October. An announcement of this year's honorees is expected sometime during the summer.

Brown and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, decide on whom to include each year from a list of candidates that have been vetted by the California Museum's board of trustees to ensure they meet the criteria to be included in the Hall of Fame.

"Submissions meeting the required criteria are added to an ongoing master list from which the governor and first lady make their final selections each year," Westrup noted in his emailed reply.

The museum invites the public to submit inductee suggestions via its website. Brenna Hamilton, the museum's communications and marketing director, said the list of eligible candidates now numbers more than 500 people.

"We like to include the public's voice; that is why we ask people to help us," said Hamilton. "But we don't get to make the decision; we just work with the governor and his wife, who are the ones who decide."

Hamilton told the B.A.R. this week that she was unsure if the museum has received submissions on behalf of Sarria. She recommended that supporters of seeing him be inducted use the online nomination form found at

The statewide campaign pushing for Sarria's induction asks that people who submit letters of support notify it they have done so by emailing Coco LaChine, the director of the campaign, at mailto:[email protected].