Karen Ocamb

Courage & Optimism: 'Nellie Queen' José Julio Sarria

Filed By Karen Ocamb | August 21, 2013 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: gay history, gay role models, International Court System, Jose Sarria, obituary

There’s a haunting line in Mart Crowley’s 1968 iconic, acerbically comedic play The Boys in the Band—“If only we didn’t hate ourselves so much. … If only we could just not hate ourselves quite so very much,” says Michael. In the documentary The Celluloid Closet, Crowley explained that the play and subsequent movie revealed the masochistic closeted fear and biting camp among the gathering of gay friends: "The self-deprecating humor was born out of a low self-esteem, from a sense of what the times told you about yourself."

Unbeknownst to many in the gay and straight communities 'shocked' by what they believed was almost a cinéma vérité of gay life, not all gay people were closeted self-haters. In fact, courageous optimist José Julio Sarria spent his life using humor, camp and song as tools of activism, and he became popular enough to become the first openly gay person in the country to run for elected office in 1961—years before The Boys in the Band and Stonewall.

Jose Julio Sarria—a proud openly gay Latino, drag queen and community activist—died quietly at his home in New Mexico on Monday, Aug. 19. He was 91.

Perhaps Sarria has not been as revered by succeeding generations as his pre-Stonewall 1950s-60s peers because he challenged society’s attitudes while sometimes wearing a dress. But as the "Empress José I, The Widow Norton,” Sarria founded and presided over the International Court System, a gay and lesbian community organization that became second only to Rev. Troy Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church in grassroots size and scope.

Sarria’s powerful story of service and inspirational activism deserves to be told alongside the stories of Harry Hay and Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, among the other notable LGBT pioneers.

The Early Years

Sarria was born in San Francisco on Dec. 12, 1922, as the only child of the unmarried Julio Sarria and Maria Delores Maldonado of Colombia He was raised by another family as his mother worked as a live-in maid. According to Vern L. Bullough in his short biography of Sarris in Before Stonewall, "Jose’s mother tolerated his early cross-dressing and encouraged his artistic development by having him take lessons in dancing, violin and voice, and the young boy had dreams of becoming an opera star."

Sarria joined the military immediately after graduating from high school following the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Since he was under five feel tall and weighed roughly 90 pounds, he was rejected by the Navy and Marines. But he devised a scheme to get his way—he agreed to have sex with an Army major recruiter in exchange for his enlistment papers. In short order, Sarria was assigned to cooking classes, eventually becoming an aide to a high-ranking officer before being promoted and transferred to occupied Germany, where he operated the officer’s dining hall. According to Bullough, Sarria “also became an expert in dealing with the black market and throwing parties. Although there was a lot of gossip about his possible sexual orientation, he was accepted by most of his colleagues.”

Sarria left the Army in 1945 with the rank of Staff Sargent. He enrolled in college and worked as a waiter at a San Francisco bar in North Beach called the Black Cat that catered to an underground Bohemian crowd—“from actors to anarchists, including a significant number of gays, prostitutes, writers and others,” Bullough writes. Homosexuality was a crime, and 'homos' were widely stigmatized as 'perverts' and 'deviants.' Gay conservative Hal Call frequented the bar with his lover, Jack. “We were always weary and on the lookout. With hands, arms and elbows on the bar at all times. We were afraid a cop would come in and sweep the place out as they did on occasion,” Call told Bullough.

An Entertainer Is Born

According to his biography on the Imperial Court’s website, Sarria started his famed career as an entertainer by accident. At one point when he was serving drinks, the Black Cat’s piano player started playing “Carmen” by Bizet, and Sarria chimed in with his high C tenor. A star opera singer and female impersonator was born.

But it was also the time of McCarthyism and police harassments and arrests intensified. The Imperial Court bio reports:

“Against this oppression, José gave the city's gay community hope with a dash of laughter. His impromptu arias would contain lyrics that would warn people of police entrapment schemes if he learned of them. He also coined some of the first known statements to instill gay pride with such slogans as: "There is nothing wrong with being gay, the crime is getting caught" or "United we stand, divided they will pick us off one by one."

Perhaps his true signature piece, however, was a tune with which he would nightly to close the bar via a sing-along with the bar's patrons. Together they would sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens." Sometimes José would lead the bar's patrons and drag entertainers to the nearby jail to serenade the gay people being held there.
The Black Cat's fame and José's morale-boosting campaigns eventually led the police to attempt to close the bar in 1949 on the grounds that it attracted gay people. The owners and clients, however, sued and in a decision by the California Supreme Court, the justices issued a ruling that a bar could not be closed simply due to the clients it attracted.”

One night after a fight during an estrangement with his lover, Sarris went out alone and was arrested in the men’s room at the St. Francis hotel by a vice squad office he knew. Since he made no overtures, he believed the bust was a setup resulting in a conviction and heavy fine. It also ruined any chance of him getting a teaching credential, so he left college. Bullough writes, “Feeling he was labeled a homosexual and a queen, he decided that he would be “the best goddamn queen that ever was!”

The "Best Goddamn Queen" Runs for Office

And that sparked his activism. Working with advice from attorney Melvin Belli, Sarria figured out a way to circumvent the law that prohibited men from wearing women’s clothing “with an intent to deceive”—a law enforced with glee minutes after Halloween was over. He had all gays wearing dresses don a tag that said, “I am a boy,” thus ending the police practice.

As a proud and prominent queen, Sarria also started pushing for gay rights. In 1960, he founded the League for Civil Education to educate people about homosexuality. To get attention for that cause—and after a spate of oppressive police raids on gay bars—Sarria decided to run for political office to show that it could be done. Hal Call helped fund his campaign. “[H]e collected enough signatures to qualify and run for city supervisor in the fall elections,” write Dudley Clendinen & Adam Nagourney in Out for Good. “Although it is not certain that the general city electorate was aware of Sarria’s sexual politics, his candidacy was the sensation of the homosexual community.”

In Behind the Mask of the Mattachine, James Sears features Sarria explaining the importance of grassroots activism to conservative friend Hall Call:

"I was saying, 'Gay is good and be proud of what you are!'  Hal said, 'You know, José, you're attacking the problem wrong.'  He said, ‘You should be talking to the educators, the professional persons.'  And, I told him that the professional person was not getting arrested....It's not the educated man that we have to heal. We have to heal the little one on the street.  They're the ones that need the change and are gonna to (sic) fight to make the change!

"Call was a great strategist. Sarria got away with it since he was in the entertainment business,” gay activist Cliff Anchor told Sears.

Sarria got 5,600 votes and came in 9th in a field of 32 candidates in 1961, running citywide before the re-districting that created supervisorial districts that enabled Harvey Milk to win in 1977. According to the Bay Area Reporter:

"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."

Sarria was the first person to back Harvey Milk’s campaign.

The Birth of an Empress

The Black Cat closed after a series of police raids in 1963, along with several other bars, bringing the total of gay and lesbian bars down to 18 in 1964 from a high of 30 bars in 1963. But instead of folding up their sparkling tents and going back into the closet, Sarria and the bar owners formed the Tavern Guild in 1965 and started throwing a huge drag event known as the Beaux Arts Ball.

According to the Imperial Court website:

“At its third Ball at the Winterland Ballroom, over 500 lesbians and gay men bravely crossed police lines, braved floodlights and the flashing lights of police photographers to attend this ball. During it, José was named the Queen of the Ball.

Soon José considered - “why be a queen when he could be an empress?” So, he proclaimed himself the Empress of San Francisco. Later, to further enhance this title, Sarria drew upon the legend of the Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton, the fabulously eccentric 19th century San Franciscan miner and rice baron who gained and lost at least one fortune. During his lifetime, Emperor Norton dressed finely and proclaimed himself the Emperor of the United States and Canada, Protector of Mexico. Heir in spirit, if not by law, to this extraordinary man, Sarria named himself the Widow Norton and began annual pilgrimages to Norton's grave in nearly Colma where he, accompanied by the Emperors of San Francisco, drag queens and members of the gay community, would pay their respects with flowers to Sarria's departed "spouse." For the past 30 years José’s annual pilgrimage to Joshua’s gravesite is full with fanfare, pomp and camp and attended by people from all walks of life from throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.”

From that, the Sarria developed bylaws and lines of succession and the Imperial Court just grew and grew. Over 30 years, the Court spread to nearly 70 areas in the US, Mexico, and Canada and focused on raising funds for charity – especially HIV/AIDS. The Imperial Court website reports that the Imperial Court of Toronto “raised funds to buy body bags and a burial ground for a more dignified closure to the lives of poor people who died of HIV/AIDS in Tijuana, Mexico. Previous to the Court's help, these people's bodies were often tossed into trash heaps.”

Sarria also co-founded the Society for Individual Rights in 1964, which also proved effective in delivering the gay vote. “SIR represented a new breed of homophile organization, one which was assertive and self-confident. Where earlier political bodies such as the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis had been assimilationist out of necessity, SIR was liberationist out of righteousness. It was also more democratic and inclusive, and this new style would become a model for gay political organizations to follow,” writes Bill Brent. “One remarkable aspect of SIR, which seems obvious only in retrospect, was that it recognized the need to create a "community feeling." This was the first time that large numbers of gay men and women participated openly and freely in a gay political entity.”

While much attention and respect is paid to the drag queens and dykes of color who were sick and tired of being bullied by cops and fought back at the Stonewall Inn in 1969—and the gays who fought back against the ever-raiding LAPD at The Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake in 1967—Jose Julio Sarria, an openly gay Latino drag queen and entertainer, sought the job of San Francisco Supervisor and received almost 6,000 votes in 1961! Later, SIR helped foster the feeling of and movement for gay liberation—the antidote to the closeted fear in The Boys in the Band

God Save the Nellie Queen

In 2006, after a campaign led by San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty and the International Court Council, the City of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro neighborhood as José Sarria Court—becoming the first openly gay citizen to have a city street named after him in San Francisco.

"San Francisco is recognized as the world's LGBT Mecca, and it's fitting that José Sarria is the first gay man to have a street named in his honor here," said former S.F. Supervisor Bevan Dufty. Sarria’s papers are collected at the LGBT Historic Society of San Francisco and the Smithsonian Institution.

San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, Chief Executive Officer of the International Court Council of the USA, Canada and Mexico, told me by phone on Monday (FYI – the mixed pronouns are Nicole’s):

“Jose was such an historic figure – but to this day she is always left out of history – as if she was never there…..

Jose always considered himself a gay man. He said he did not want to be remembered only as a man who wore dresses and he educated people….

In the 1960s, Rosa Parks said that she refused to move to the back of the bus that day because she was tired of being treated like a second class citizen. That’s why Jose ran for office – we were all tired of being treated like second class citizens! And remember – it wasn’t until 1976 that being gay was legal. You could be sent to a mental institution!....

She wanted to be known for who she was: she was a proud Latino, a veteran and a drag queen. She was proud of who she was a human being and gay man – in her totality.”

Russell Roybal, First Imperial Grandson to Empress I Jose, The Widow Norton and Deputy Executive Director of External Relations of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said:

"Words cannot express what a tremendous loss I feel today on the passing of José Sarria. He is an icon of the LGBT community, a hero, a mentor and a friend. José brought laughter, camp and fun to all of our lives and to the struggle not just for gay and lesbian liberation, but for all people. His legacy as a gay Latino leader, activist and drag queen will live on for all of us who share his commitment to the communities from which we come."

(Photo used with permission: Jose Sarria, Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mavis at the Empress Coronation, presenting a check from an anonymous donor to purchase uniforms for the first ever Gay and Lesbian Freedom Marching Band, San Francisco, photo © Oct. 28, 1978 by dannynicoletta.com. All rights reserved.)

Stuart Milk, founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation and Harvey Milk’s nephew, said:

"José Sarria, founder of the International Court System showed us how to turn a night into a grand occasion and a grand occasion into a means of providing support.  That support led so many who did not "fit in" to actually proudly stand out, together, creating a local sense of community and an international network that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local and major charities.  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.  José’s extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end.  And the extraordinary good that he did lives on.  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.  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 José in our history books and in our hearts."

Wilson Cruz, GLAAD spokesperson, said:

"José Julio Sarria's passing today is an enormous loss. His work as a politician, humanitarian, and performer was unprecedented, and has rightfully earned him a place in history. He was an icon who stood his ground for himself and so many others when it was hardest to do so. During such a formative time for the LGBT and Latino communities it is crucial that we remember and honor the exceptional people like José for making our successes possible. He will forever reside in the hearts and minds of the LGBT and Latino communities and their allies. Thank you, José."

Speaker John A. Pérez of the California Assembly noted that Sarria had impact beyond California:

"José Sarria was a monumental figure in the LGBT Community whose contributions to our movement cannot be overstated. His trailblazing run for public office as an openly gay man laid the groundwork for LGBT Californians to run for public office proudly and openly. But José's refusal to be silenced or shamed back into the closet--in an era where LGBT People were routinely discriminated against--was the greatest contribution to our movement. José's courageous personal example of living life openly, with pride and dignity, gave so many others the courage and confidence they needed to do the same. José's death is a great loss for our community, and it's fitting that it drew to a close just days after an historic victory in the Supreme Court that could never have happened without brave souls like José Sarria leading the way for all of us."

State Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco said:

“Today we lost a dear friend and fearless community leader who will forever hold a place in our hearts and history books as the first openly gay person in the nation to run for elected office. When José threw his hat into the ring for San Francisco Supervisor more than 50 years ago, he became one of the first to publically proclaim that there is no reason, constitutional or otherwise, to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people first-class citizenship, respect and dignity under the law. Jose’s visionary and legendary leadership helped build the foundation for our successful, modern-day LGBT civil rights movement. His sly humor and wicked wit disarmed nearly every adversary."

Rodney A. Scott, President of Christopher Street West/ L.A. Pride, which honored the Imperial Court as Community Grand Marshall in 2010, CSW’s 40th anniversary and the 45th anniversary for the Imperial Court:

It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to one of the country’s most heroic LGBT pioneers,  Jose Julio Sarria. As the founder International Court System in 1965, Jose and the Court set out to create a safe and celebratory opportunity for LGBT people to come together, have fun and to raise millions of dollars to fight for our justice, health and for full equality. As a community, all of us together, we owe Jose a great deal of gratitude for his leadership, courage, strength and tenacity.  As a community, we must remember that we have a history and honor those like Jose, who have paved the way for all of us.”

In his bio on their website, the Imperial Court says of Sarria: 

For over half a century, José, the one-time "Nightingale of Montgomery Street," has nurtured, protected and guided San Francisco and North America's gay communities through McCarthyism, the backlash against gay rights, AIDS, and even the occasional bad makeup job. He is truly a living hero and role model for all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people or anyone who admires courage and optimism against daunting odds.

José Julio Sarria will be buried in San Francisco.  A memorial date is pending.

Here’s Jose Julio Sarria singing “God Save Us Nellie Queens”

Photo credit: Sarria's equality poster via the records of the GLBT Historical Society, San Francisco.


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