Jose Sarria: Activist empress

Posted on 11 Jan 2007 at 5:54pm
By Tammye Nash Senior Editor

San Francisco drag queen was first openly gay candidate for public office



Jose Sarria in 2006 at a ceremony where part of Castro Street was renamed in his honor. (BILL WILSON/Special Contributor)

Jose Sarria was a gay activist when gay activism wasn’t cool. He was, in fact, an out and up front advocate of gay rights back when, even in San Francisco, his kind of outspokenness could land a person in jail.

Even though he had identified as gay at a young age, Sarria enlisted in the U.S. Army in his early 20s, after the start of World War II, according to an article about his life written by Ruth Pettis and posted online at www.GLBTQ.com.

Sarria headed back home to San Francisco after the war and started working as a waiter at the Black Cat Caf?. Before long, though, the customers there had heard him sing often enough that Sarria had moved from waiting tables to performing on stage. It was that move that allowed him to begin developing the female impersonation roles that made him famous and when he first began closing the bar each night with his rousing rendition of “God Save Us Nellie Queens.”

Back in those days, California’s vice and alcohol control agencies made frequent raids on gay bars. It was that kind of harassment that prompted the gay bars of San Francisco to band together and form the San Francisco Tavern Guild in 1959.

In 1961, according to Pettis’ article, as the harassment continued, the Tavern Guild backed Sarria as a candidate for the city’s Board of Supervisors. That made Sarria the first openly gay candidate for public office.

Even though Sarria managed to get enough signatures on the petition to get his name on the ballot, which wasn’t an easy task, he knew he wouldn’t win the election. But winning wasn’t what really mattered to Sarria; what he really wanted was to show that gay and lesbian voters could be a force to be reckoned with. He did that by getting 5,600 votes laying the groundwork for those to come, including Harvey Milk who in 1977 became the first openly gay person elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

As Pettis wrote in her article, Sarria was a “merry prankster” who, when he was onstage at the Black Cat, Sarria would point out the undercover police officers in the audience and encourage the crowd to give them a round of applause. He would give men in women’s clothing buttons to wear declaring “I am a boy” so they could not be arrested under the city’s “intent to deceive” statute.
After being arrested himself on a morals charge, Sarria urged others in that situation to demand jury trials, a tactic that crammed so many such trials into the court dockets that judges began demanding that officers present more evidence to support such charges, making prosecutions much more difficult.

Sarria also founded the League for Civil Education, in 1960, and the Society for Individual Rights, in 1963.

Then, in 1964, the San Francisco Tavern Guild named Sarria “Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball,” prompting Sarria to respond that since he was already a queen, he should instead be named empress. He then went on to declare himself “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose I, The Widow Norton” taking his title from one of San Francisco’s more well-known eccentrics, Joseph Norton, who had in 1859 declared himself “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

In the act of declaring himself empress, Sarria helped launch yet another new organization: the Imperial Court system, a network of non-profit charitable organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada that raise money for various beneficiaries.
The United Court of the Lone Star Empire in Dallas and the Imperial Court de Fort Worth/Arlington are both active chapters in the court system today, holding events year-round to raise money for LGBT and AIDS-related causes.

According to photographer Bill Wilson of San Francisco, several years ago Sarria became very ill, and many of his friends were afraid that he would not recover. At that point, the local Imperial Court chapter decided to raise funds to pay for a tombstone equal in grandeur to that of “Emperor Norton 1″ at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma.

Sarria recovered, but the tombstone was purchased anyway, engraved and placed in the cemetery already. It reads: “Jose Sarria, Empress Norton 1, The Widow Norton, “‘United we stand; divided, they catch us one by one.”

Wilson said that the city has promised Sarria a state funeral, but at the time of Sarria’s illness, the San Francisco City Hall was undergoing seismic restoration.

Wilson said the standing joke at the time was that Sarria would not die then because “Jose isn’t leaving until City Hall is reopened so he can lie in state there.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recognized Sarria’s lifelong activism and contributions to the city and the LGBT community in 2006 by voting unanimously to rename a portion of Castro Street in his honor.

Wilson said that Sarria currently lives near Palm Springs and is “more lively this year than ever before.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 12, 2007

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