Effort to induct gay drag icon Sarria into CA Hall of Fame pays off

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday August 14, 2023
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José Julio Sarria will be posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame August 22. Photo: Rick Gerharter
José Julio Sarria will be posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame August 22. Photo: Rick Gerharter

For the past eight years friends and admirers of the late José Julio Sarria, a gay man and drag queen who left a lasting impact on politics and the LGBTQ community, have sought to see him inducted into the California Hall of Fame. The Latino World War II veteran became the first known gay person to seek public office with his ultimately unsuccessful 1961 bid for a San Francisco Board of Supervisors seat.

Four years later he had founded the Imperial Court System in San Francisco and proclaimed himself Empress I of San Francisco. The philanthropic drag organization has since crowned scores of empresses, emperors, and other drag royalty while raising funds for charitable causes and now has 70 chapters in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Thus, many LGBTQ community leaders and elected officials have argued for years that Sarria, born in San Francisco, was more than worthy of being in the hall. But their entreaties to the state's governors and their wives, who oversee the selection process, each year went ignored.

Until now, that is. Sarria will be part of the hall's 16th class inducted virtually by Governor Gavin Newsom and first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom on Tuesday, August 22. Like Sarria, who died in 2013, all of the 2023 inductees are being honored posthumously.

"We are thrilled to announce the newest class of inductees joining some of our state's most revolutionary, innovative, and brightest in the California Hall of Fame," Newsom stated. "The outstanding legacy of this group has and will continue to embody what it means to be a Californian. There is no doubt their legacies will continue to live on and inspire millions across our state for generations to come."

Siebel Newsom added, "The governor and I are delighted to honor the contributions of this remarkable group of visionaries. Each one of these pioneers has uniquely impacted California through their boundless creativity, perseverance, and courage — encapsulating the California dream through their lives and legacies."

Nicole Murray Ramirez, left, joined José Julio Sarria at an event. Photo: Courtesy Nicole Murray Ramirez  

Induction amid drag backlash
Sarria's selection comes amid a backlash against drag performers by conservatives. Republican-controlled legislatures in a number of states have passed laws banning drag events at public venues or targeted performers directly. The legislation has subsequently been challenged in court, with several federal judges finding them to be unconstitutional and blocking their implementation.

Newsom spoke out against such anti-drag laws earlier this year. It likely played into his decision to finally induct Sarria into the hall after snubbing him since becoming governor in 2019, suggested promoters of Sarria's inclusion. He is the second drag queen named to the hall, as Newsom inducted RuPaul into it in 2019.

"I think José's induction, historic induction into the hall of fame is coming at the perfect time when there is a national focus and bills trying to make drag illegal in so many states," said gay San Diego resident and civic leader Nicole Murray Ramirez, who has led the campaign in support of Sarria's being inducted. "José is a role model that drag queens are not just about drag. Us drag queens, we put our dresses in our closets after our work. We are not just about what we wear when we entertain."

Murray Ramirez 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. He thanked the Bay Area Reporter for its coverage over the years about the effort to see Sarria join the other Californians in the hall.

The LGBTQ newspaper of record based in San Francisco was the first to report on the campaign in 2015 and has continued to do so with each announcement of the new class of inductees. After Newsom last year, again, didn't include Sarria in the 15th class, the B.A.R. called on him to "stop snubbing Sarria" in an editorial.

"I want to sincerely acknowledge the B.A.R., who were staunch supporters. Their editorial and coverage on this led to other media across the country getting behind this campaign," said Murray Ramirez, who will be in San Francisco August 19 for an Imperial Court fundraiser marking the 10th anniversary of Sarria's passing. "My heart is really full."

Other California luminaries being inducted this year include singer Etta James, who was born in Los Angeles and died in 2012 at the age of 73; actress and screenwriter Carrie Fisher, most famous for her role as Princess Leia in the "Stars Wars" movies, who was born in Burbank and died in 2016 at the age of 60; and actress Shirley Temple Black, who was living in the San Mateo County town of Woodside when she died at the age of 85 in 2014.

Another inductee is pilot and physicist Maggie Gee, a Bay Area native who died at the age of 89 in 2013. The Berkeley-born Gee was one of only two Chinese Americans among the Women Airforce Service Pilots who served in World War II.

Also part of the 16th Hall class are two sports legends. Oakland native Archie Franklin Williams won gold in the 400 meter run at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. He died at age 78 in 1993. Celebrated Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster for 67 years Vin Scully died last year at the age of 94.

Sarria reportedly was 90 at the time of his death though, as the B.A.R. noted in a story last year, 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 at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma.

But some records indicate Sarria was born on December 13, 1922, while several birth certificates that the José Sarria 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.

What is without dispute is that Sarria became famous in the 1950s performing in drag at the gay hangout the Black Cat Cafe in San Francisco'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."

His pioneering life story has been featured in several movies and documentaries in recent years. Sarria was inducted into the Palm Springs Walk of Stars last December; he had lived in the nearby LGBTQ-friendly enclave of Cathedral City from 2000 to 2010.

An effort to see Sarria and two other late drag performers, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, be featured on U.S. postal stamps was launched in 2020 by Murray Ramirez after he read a B.A.R. article about several stamps honoring Bugs Bunny's 80th birthday depicting the cartoon rabbit in drag, which marked the first time American postage had featured drag imagery.

With Sarria's induction into the hall of fame, Murray Ramirez told the B.A.R. he hopes it provides momentum for also seeing the postage stamps come to fruition. It would be another fitting honor for someone many consider to be an influential LGBTQ pioneer, he said.

"What people need to remember is José was an activist and advocate in the 1950s and 1960s when, in California, homosexuality wasn't made legal until 1967. We were being sent by the stroke of a hand of a judge's signature or your parents to mental hospitals," recalled Murray Ramirez. "I knew many who were subjected to lobotomies and electric shock treatments. Yet José and others back then were out as advocates. We stand on their shoulders."

Murray Ramirez expressed his gratitude to several current and former out state legislators who backed the campaign to see Sarria join the hall of fame, including gay state Senator Scott Wiener and his gay predecessor Mark Leno of San Francisco, as well as lesbian Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who was one of the first people to pen a letter of support in 2015.

He also thanked Stuart Milk, the gay nephew of the late gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, for his support. His uncle, the first LGBTQ elected official in California, was posthumously inducted into the hall in 2009 as part of its fourth class by Republican former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2006, Schwarzenegger and his former wife, Maria Shriver, partnered with the California Museum to launch it.

Reacting to the news about Sarria's induction into the hall, Wiener stated Monday that it was "long overdue." He had chaired the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus in 2019 and 2020 when it had urged Newsom to recognize Sarria with such an honor.

"As the founder of the Imperial Court System, Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton worked endlessly to support and uplift LGBTQ people and to make San Francisco a better and more inclusive city," stated Wiener. "As the first gay man in United States history to run for public office, he created space for people like me to run and hold office. During the worst periods of LGBTQ persecution, Jose fought back against discriminatory treatment and advocated for the equal protection of LGBTQ people."

Today, added Wiener, Sarria's "courage is a reminder of the critical role that drag performers have played in the movement for LGBTQ rights, and of the power of living unapologetically as one's authentic self. What better represents California's values than that?"

Most years the induction ceremony is held live at the museum in Sacramento in late fall. But it is being held virtually this year because of the honorees all being inducted posthumously, similar to the 2021 ceremony held online for the posthumous honorees in the hall's 14th class.

The induction ceremony for the 16th class will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 22, and be livestreamed via the governor's office account on X, formerly known as Twitter.

It will also be streamed live via the California Museum's YouTube page.

Other LGBTQ luminaries inducted to the hall have included gay artist David Hockney, lesbian tennis star Billie Jean King, gay TV star George Takei, gay San Francisco Symphony music director laureate Michael Tilson Thomas, the late lesbian astronaut Sally Ride, and the late pioneering lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. Last year saw the inclusion of lesbian USA women's soccer champion Megan Rapinoe.

To learn more about the hall and its inductees, visit its webpage.

UPDATED 8/14/23 with comment from Senator Wiener.

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