From the Bay Area Reporter- August, 2013
by Cynthia Laird
Jose Julio Sarria, a legendary San Francisco drag queen who made history as the first openly gay person to seek political office in America, 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.
“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,” Stuart Milk said in a statement.
Stuart Milk, who is openly gay, 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.”
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.”
It was 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 System
Mr. Sarria went on to found 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 first empress in the San Francisco chapter.
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, I Jose.
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 22, 1922 as the only child of Maria Delores Maldonado of Columbia 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 1945.
Following the closure of the Black Cat in 1964, Mr. Sarria went to work with restaurateur Pierre Parker and the pair operated French restaurants at World’s Fairs, according to his Wikipedia page.
Mr. Sarria was honored by the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee with its Lifetime Achievement grand marshal title in 2005. On May 25, 2006 the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro Jose Sarria Court. 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.