Jose Julio Sarria, who in 1961 became the first openly gay person to run for political office in the U.S. running unsuccessfully for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco died at his home in New Mexico this morning at the age of 90. The San Francisco native and World War II veteran is also known for founding the Imperial Court system (a pre-RuPaul's Drag Race contest, if you will) after declaring himself in 1965, in drag, Empress Jose I, the Widow Norton. Because of his pioneering work at the forefront of the nascent battle for LGBT rights in 1950s San Francisco, he's been called "The Rosa Parks of the Gay Rights Movement."
Sarria rose to local fame in the growing gay community of San Francisco in the late 1950s at the Black Cat bar in North Beach, where he was nicknamed "The Nightingale of Montgomery Street" and was known for his nightly performances of one-woman operas. He always closed each night by having the audience join hands and sing "God Save Nelly Queens" to the tune of "God Save the Queen." He performed regularly at the Black Cat until it closed in 1964.
After serving in the military despite his diminutive size he allegedly "seduced" a recruiting officer to approve his admission despite being under the five-foot minimum height he returned to San Francisco to go to college and become a teacher. His drag career began after being arrested on a "morals" charge (for alleged solicitation, which he denied), and realizing that he would have to abandon the teaching thing with that on his record.
Likely because of his own arrest, and having the soul of an activist, Sarria regularly admonished patrons at the Black Cat to stop living in secret and be proud to be gay. He famously said, "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one." He became a scrappy pioneer in combatting police harassment in an era when regular raids by police on gay bars in San Francisco were commonplace. Patrons were rounded up and charged with something archaic like being "inmates in a disorderly house" and often either saw charges dropped or had to plead guilty and pay a fine. Sarria brilliantly began a campaign to get more of these LGBT people to plead not guilty and force a court trial, overloading city courts and causing prosecutors to have to seek more evidence against them. The campaign eventually forced an end to these police raids, and kept San Francisco from having a Stonewall-style riot in the following decade.
Sarria also fought against the arrests of drag queens that regularly happened on Halloween, on charges of dressing as women with "the intent to deceive," by making handmade signs for them to pin on themselves saying "I am a boy."
He decided to run for political office in 1961 after police pressure on the gay community had begun to intensify, and after garnering 6,000 votes in the election, he shocked local leaders who for the first time realized that there was a gay voting bloc they might have to cater to in future. When Harvey Milk launched his first campaign in 1973, Sarria was there by his side.
While Sarria founded a number of pioneering organizations for gay rights, like the League for Civil Education, the Tavern Guild, and the Society for Individual Rights, his greatest legacy has been the Imperial Court, which has grown into a national organization that functions like the gay Shriners or Lion's Club, complete with annual drag balls and local coronations. He declared himself Empress of San Francisco after winning a drag ball in 1965, making reference to legendary town kook Emperor Norton, and since then the Court has continued to crown an Emperor and Empress each year. (Sadly, Marlena's bar in Hayes Valley, which was an ersatz clubhouse for Court folk, closed for good earlier this year.) The Imperial Court, which now has 67 chapters in the U.S., raises money for charities like the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and the Tijuana AIDS Project.
In 2006, with the help of then Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a section of 16th Street outside the Harvey Milk branch library was renamed Jose Sarria Court.
There is to be a memorial for Sarria in San Francisco, with a date and venue TBA.