Drag icon Sarria joins CA Hall of Fame

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday August 22, 2023
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José Julio Sarria was posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame August 22. PHoto: Courtesy CA Hall of Fame
José Julio Sarria was posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame August 22. PHoto: Courtesy CA Hall of Fame

The late drag queen José Julio Sarria, a gay Latino veteran who left a lasting impact on politics and the LGBTQ community, is now the second drag queen to be part of the California Hall of Fame. The former San Francisco resident was one of seven Golden State luminaries to be posthumously inducted into the hall Tuesday as part of its 16th class.

Governor Gavin Newsom and first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom presided over the virtual ceremony. Sarria joins RuPaul, inducted in 2019, as the only drag performers among the honorees in the hall, which is overseen by the California Museum.

In introducing Sarria during the couple's taped remarks, Siebel Newsom called him a "legendary drag queen who made an indelible mark on California's LGBTQ community."

Sarria's induction is the culmination of an eight-year campaign to see that he be in the hall. A World War II servicemember, Sarria in 1961 became the first known gay person to seek public office when he unsuccessfully sought a San Francisco Board of Supervisors seat.

By then he was a well-known drag performer at the now defunct North Beach club the Black Cat Cafe. Throughout the 1950s Sarria famously would close his performances by singing "God Save Us Nelly Queens" to patrons.

In 1965, he founded the Imperial Court System in San Francisco and proclaimed himself Empress I of San Francisco, the Widow Norton. 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.

Sarria died on August 19, 2013 at the reported age of 90. (His exact date of birth is a matter of some debate, with one online archive saying he was 89 at the time of his death.)

Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, praised Sarria for "revolutionizing the modern LGBTQ-plus civil rights movement and paving the way for others like Harvey Milk." He was referring to the late San Francisco supervisor who was the first gay person elected to public office both in the city and state, and is already a hall inductee.

No matter what role he played, noted Newsom, Sarria had "unshakeable pride in himself and his community."

Empress L Khmera Rouge, left, Empress XXXIII Alexis Miranda; Nicole Murray Ramirez, who was an empress of the Imperial Court in 1973; Empress XL Tiger Lily; and Empress LVII Ehra Amaya. Photo: Bill WIlson  

Attending an event in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district last Saturday to mark the 10th anniversary of Sarria's passing, drag queen Sister Roma told the Bay Area Reporter the timing of Sarria's induction into the hall is fortuitous due to the attacks against drag venues and performers being waged by Republican lawmakers across the country. When the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus recognized Roma at the Statehouse in June during Pride Month, GOP legislators walked out in protest.

"I am super happy that José has received this recognition. I feel it is very well deserved, but also extremely important for this time we are living in," said Roma, a member of the drag nun philanthropic group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. "Right now red states across the country are trying to ban drag and criminalize transgender people and queer people. It is very reassuring to see California make this bold statement. It brings me great joy and pride."

Queer San Francisco resident John Brett, the Imperial Court's reigning Mr. Cowboy 2022-2023, also told the B.A.R. he was pleased to learn about Sarria's inclusion in the hall.

"It's meaningful that an activist of the queer community of José's stature is recognized," said Brett, sporting a rainbow cowboy hat with his crown affixed to it. "The court is the oldest LGBTQ nonprofit in the world. It has been making itself visible and providing space and supports before many were willing to come out of the closet."

Brett, who grew up on a wheat farm in north-central Washington state, is also part of the city's night ministry and has served as a chaplain since 2014. He noted that it has worked collaboratively with the Imperial Court since the 1960s and advocated for Sarria's state funeral to be held at Grace Cathedral atop San Francisco's Nob Hill.

"I spoke to some elected leaders in San Francisco over the years and asked them to support his induction," said Brett, who told the B.A.R. he planned to sing a round of "God Save Us Nelly Queens" Tuesday night as he watched the induction ceremony.

An early photo of José Julio Sarria. Photo: Courtesy California Hall of Fame  

Empress LVII Ehra Amaya, a Filipinx nurse, drag queen, and LGBTQA+ advocate, told the B.A.R. she draws inspiration from Sarria's becoming a part of the hall.

"To be an empress like Mamma José, it gives us more inspiration to do more good for the community," said Amaya, who was empress in 2022. "To be the first openly gay man to run for office, you can't beat that."

Also inducted into the hall along with Sarria were 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 "Star 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.

World War II pilot and physicist Maggie Gee, a Bay Area native who died at the age of 89 in 2013, was also inducted Tuesday night, as were Oakland native Archie Franklin Williams, a gold medal-winning Olympic runner who died at the age of 78 in 1993, and Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, who died last year at the age of 94.

Calling the inductees "real change makers," Newsom said this year's class is a reminder that "no matter who you are, or where you come from, anything is possible in the Golden State."

In 2006, Republican then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his former wife, Maria Shriver, partnered with the California Museum to launch the hall.

To learn more about the inductees, visit the hall's webpage.

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