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Please begin with an informative title:

One of the real icons of the struggle for LGBT Rights died Monday in Albuquerque. Jose Sarria provided a voice for a mostly voiceless gay community in San Francisco during the late 1950s and early 1960s as a waiter and entertainer at the Black Cat Saloon in the North Beach section of San Francisco. Bill in Portland Maine wrote a nice tribute to Jose based on the obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday in this morning's Cheers and Jeers. Nothing in the New York Times, nothing in the Los Angeles Times, nothing in the mainstream press.

More below.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

Try to imagine the passing of Rosa Parks having been memorialized in the Montgomery newspaper and nowhere else. This is how much work still needs to be done in the telling of our history.

I wrote a fairly long essay on Sarria for a project that became Qualia Folk, a site for LGBT scholarship, established and curated by Mickey Weems (who writes frequently for EDGE Boston, and Weems added to it after I submitted it in a true collaborative effort. This is indeed crossposted from www.qualiafolk.com. Feel free to engage with me in the comments here at the GOS.

Jose Julio Sarria (1923-2013, also known as The Widow Norton) was an activist, drag queen, singer, Empress of the Imperial Court in San Francisco, and Gay icon who used drag, humor, and song to help Gay people become aware of their rights.

Jose Sarria was born December 22, 1923 to an unwed mother who left Colombia and settled in San Francisco. After serving in the army in WWII, he attended college in 1949, studying to be a teacher on the GI Bill. But when he was arrested for public indecency in the Oak Room, an all-men'€™s bar in the St. Francis Hotel, his tarnished record prevented him from teaching in schools.

The Black Cat

The story of Jose Sarria is intimately linked to the Black Cat, a San Francisco Gay bar that featured drag queens as its entertainment. When the bar lost its liquor license because of its clientele, its owner, Sol Stoumen, hired an attorney who shifted the focus of the case from sexual immorality to the rights of homosexual people. In 1951, the California Supreme Court restored the bar'€™s liquor license, arguing that despite its reputation, there was no evidence of illegal or immoral conduct on the bar'€™s premises, a ruling that granted Gay bars in San Francisco greater legal standing as legitimate businesses.

Sarria began working at the Black Cat as a waiter. His high tenor voice, wit, and sense of humor earned him a job as a singer-performer. He was dubbed “The Nightingale of Montgomery Street” by newspaper columnist Herb Caen, and soon became an important part of the entertainment. "I became the Black Cat,"€ Sarria said in Nan Alamilla Boyd's book, Wide Open Town.

Sarria described his performance style as parody drag. Performing for a clientele that consisted of people living double lives (Straight in public, Gay in private), he was a witty Gay man in women'€™s clothing onstage, and a witty, effeminate Gay man offstage. Sarria felt that many of the problems faced by the Gay community could be traced to its lack of visibility as a people who demanded their rights. Reflecting the pro-Gay ethos of the bar and its owner, Sarria was famous for his slogans, including "€œThere is nothing wrong with being gay, the crime is getting caught!" and "€œWe could change the laws if we weren'€™t always hiding.€ He would tell the Black Cat clientele, "€œUnited we stand, divided they arrest us one by one."€

Sarria performed parodies of operas, especially a re-working of Carmen set in modern-day San Francisco. As Carmen, Sarria would cruise (look for men with which to have sex) Union Square. The vice squad would chase her, but she would outwit them as the audience shouted their support. At the end of each show, he would ask the assembled patrons to link arms and join him in singing €œGod Save Us Nelly Queens (to the tune of €œGod Save the Queen/My Country, ‘Tis of Thee€). He would occasionally take the customers from the Black Cat to the jail across the street from the bar so they could sing to those incarcerated within. "€œOne of the officers in charge would open the window so the inmates could hear us,"€ said Sarria in an interview with Mickey Weems (November 2009).

In addition to his role at the Black Cat, Sarria made an even larger contribution to LGBTQ liberation. He campaigned for a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 as the first openly Gay candidate in American politics. The election was for five at-large seats in a citywide ballot. His campaign slogan was "€œGay is Good,"€ and he won 5,600 votes, finishing ninth. He said he ran to show it could be done, and seventeen years later, it would indeed happen. After campaigning and winning the election for San Francisco'€™s Fifth District, Harvey Milk would serve on the Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly Gay man elected to public office in California.

Activism, Charity, and the Imperial Court

In 1963, Sarria took part in founding the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), a community-oriented activist organization that sponsored bowling, bridge, voter registration, political symposiums, and published Vector, a magazine for Gay people. In 1965, he formed the Imperial Court System of female impersonators, which grew to become an international association of charitable organizations for drag queens and kings in the USA, Canada, and Mexico, each with its own royalty and titles. Sarria served as Empress Jose I (or, Absolute Empress I), the Widow Norton, wife of Norton I, Emperor of North America and Protector of Mexico. In the Weems interview, Sarria said his claim to be the wife of Joshua Norton, an eccentric and beloved nineteenth-century San Franciscan, is indisputable since Norton is dead. Sarria made an annual pilgrimage to lay flowers at Norton’s grave in Colma, California.

Sarria reigned over the Courts for 43 years until 2007. During his reign, he and members of the Imperial Court appeared in the opening scenes of the film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). On May 25, 2006, the city of San Francisco named a portion of 16th Street in the Castro District €œJose Sarria Court,€ and a metal plaque commemorating the event (with a picture of the Empress I) was embedded in the sidewalk.

Special acknowledgement to JD Doyle and his superb site, Queer Musical Heritage, for many of the pictures used in this article (queermusicheritage.us).

Further reading:

Boyd, Nan Alamilla, Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California, 2003.

D'€™Emilio, John, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.

Gorman, Michael R., The Empress is a Man: Stories from the Life of Jose Sarria. New York: Haworth, 1998.

For those of you in the Bay Area who want to remember his life, Puffin reports, via the SF History Association, that a public viewing and funeral will be happening Sept 5th and 6th.

Thursday, September 5
1pm – 9pm
Halsted & Gray
1123 Sutter St

Friday, September 6
11am – 12:30pm
Grace Cathedral
1100 California St

Woodlawn Cemetery
1000 El Camino Real


11:17 PM PT: Thank you, Community Spotlight. This is an important diary published by three important groups, and I and the groups appreciate this!

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Remembering LGBT History on Thu Aug 22, 2013 at 06:01 PM PDT.

Also republished by LGBT Rights are Human Rights, LatinoKos, and Community Spotlight.

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