The Death of an American Original

JoseSMcolorStephanie Donald—Publisher, LGBT-Today

Last Monday our community lost one of our most original gay pioneers; José Sarria, who passed away due to cancer of the adrenal gland at his home in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M. He was 90.

Mr. Sarria (Pronounced Sar-rea) was born in San Francisco on December 12, 1922. When World War II broke out he didn’t hesitate to enlist and do his part to defend America. After the war he spent an extra year serving in Berlin, staying active in the theater.

Upon being discharged he returned home to San Francisco. He had aspirations of becoming a school teacher but an arrest on morals charges in the public restroom of the St. Francis Hotel made it impossible so he turned to his SarriaVeteransecond love; the theatrical.

José first went to the Black Cat bar in the North Beach section of San Francisco as a patron but when the bar seemed dull with just a piano player, he spoke to the man playing the piano and began singing a camp version of Carmen that captured the attention of everyone including the owner. By the end of the evening Sarria had a fulltime job. The elaborate drag that was his trademark followed later.

After so many hundreds of times of having his act interrupted by police raids of the bar and seeing friends have their reputation, family and jobs irreparably harmed, José Sarria became the first out gay man on record to run for public office when he ran for City Supervisor of San Francisco in 1961 on the one-word platform of “Equality” with his picture on the posters in a borrowed suit. Out of a field of 30 candidates Sarria finished 9th for five seats.

“From that day on,” Mr. Sarria said, “there’s never been a politician in San Francisco, not even a dogcatcher, that did not go and talk to the gay community.”

Since the gay community could rarely count on the police and court system for justice so in 1965 Mr. Sarria proclaimed himself the First Empress of San Francisco and opened the Imperial Court de San Francisco, playing on every camp aspect of the drag world but at the same time giving a home to the disenfranchised who feared everything in the straight world.

Even to this day there are 65 chapters of the International Court in the United States, Canada and Mexico that stand as José’s legacy.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Sarria but did place a call to his number last October during LGBT History Month. I left a message asking to interview him but received no call back so I guess I just wasn’t a big enough fish but I truly wish I had the opportunity to meet this marvelous man if only by phone.

There were many Gay Pioneers and every one of them contributed to the freedoms we now enjoy in some way but José Sarria gave the people hope, laughter, grandeur and most of all a sense of community that began a mindset that set the stage for the future of San Francisco’s Castro District.

When Harvey Milk ran for City Supervisor in 1977 he had the endorsement and friendship of José Sarria. The night of Milk’s election celebration was visited by The First Empress herself to give her blessing.

I doubt that as many people as need to will read about José Sarria since it has become so unfashionable to read and learn about LGBT history but for those of you who do, I might recommend his history brief on Wikipedia and the excellent chapter in Paul Cain’s book, Leading the Parade.

José Sarria’s passing, I hope, will not be forgotten as easily as some of the major players such as Jack Nichols, Harry Hay, Hal Call, Barbara Gittings and Dr. Frank Kameny but with today’s generation of, “Huh? Never heard of him.” It will more than likely make those of us who wish to preserve our history and culture shed yet but another tear at how quickly a true American icon can be completely forgotten faster than last week’s lotto numbers.

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