Editorial: Stop snubbing Sarria

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday November 9, 2022
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José Julio Sarria spoke at the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club fundraiser on May 21, 2012, where he received the Harry Britt Lifetime Achievement Award and encouraged attendees to be active and make change. Photo: Rick Gerharter
José Julio Sarria spoke at the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club fundraiser on May 21, 2012, where he received the Harry Britt Lifetime Achievement Award and encouraged attendees to be active and make change. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom and first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom announced the latest list of honorees for the California Hall of Fame and, once again, a deserving LGBTQ person was omitted. While all of the members of this year's class, including lesbian soccer star Megan Rapinoe, are commendable, the fact that the LGBTQ community has been waiting seven years to see the late gay Latino veteran and drag queen José Julio Sarria added posthumously to the hall is frustrating.

It was back in 2015 that we urged then-governor Jerry Brown and his wife, Ann Gust, to induct Sarria, to no avail. (The California Hall of Fame is a project of the governor, first partner, and the California Museum.) Since then, the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus has worked on the matter but has also come up short in its entreaties to the governor.

Other LGBTQ elected officials and community leaders have also sought to see Sarria named to the hall, only to be let down every year when the new list of honorees is released. And yes, in recent years, there usually has been at least one LGBTQ person inducted, but since the hall of fame honors residents of the state who have made lasting contributions to society, it's hard for us to see how Sarria misses the cut year after year.

Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco who has always enjoyed broad support in the LGBTQ community, surely knows about Sarria and his contributions. For those who don't know, Sarria, who died in 2013 at the age of 90, made history in 1961 as the first out gay person to seek elective office in the U.S.

His bid for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was unsuccessful but his public declaration to fight for gay rights paved the way for many LGBTQ candidates who followed to seek and win elective office, not only in the Golden State but across the country. That was evident this week as LGBTQs, for the first time in history, ran for public office in all 50 states.

Out candidates won elective office in numerous states — as well as right here in the Bay Area — with some making history as the first out person elected to their office.

Then there is Sarria's charitable work. He was a pioneer in San Francisco's nascent but growing gay community in the 1950s. He created what became known as the Imperial Court System and crowned 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. But more than just a social club for drag queens, the Imperial Court has raised millions of dollars for charity and helped educate the public about drag culture and LGBTQ rights. The San Francisco Imperial Council celebrated its 57th anniversary this year and was the first of numerous Imperial courts around the country and the world.

San Diego resident Nicole Murray Ramirez, a former Imperial Court empress who currently holds the title Queen Mother I of the Americas, Canada, United States, and Mexico, is one of the leaders of the campaign to see Sarria inducted into the hall of fame. Reached for comment last week on this year's absence of Sarria in the new class, Ramirez said, "We're disappointed, but we're going to keep writing letters." Ramirez pointed out that Sarria was a Latino servicemember and a historic figure in the LGBTQ community.

In fact, that diversity is important. Again, like their straight counterparts, the LGBTQ people selected for the hall over the years have all been deserving, but most of them have been cis white people. We have yet to see a trans, bisexual, queer, or nonbinary person honored. LGBTQ people of color who have been inducted include gay actor George Takei and gay television personality and reality show host RuPaul Charles.

Next month, the city of Palm Springs will be honoring Sarria with induction into its Walk of Stars as part of the 100th jubilee taking place to honor him. (The events are being organized by the José Sarria Foundation, which considers December 12, 1922 to be Sarria's birthdate. Other records show his birthdate as December 12, 1923.)

Someone like Sarria, who has contributed so much to the LGBTQ community — and was a history-maker in his own right — surely belongs in the California Hall of Fame. Since he easily won reelection to a second four-year term Tuesday night, Newsom will have another opportunity next year when the 2023 class is announced. He and Siebel Newsom should include Sarria in the hall of fame.

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