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José Julio Sarria
(December 13, 1922 or 23 - August 19, 2013) U.S.A.

José Julio Sarria

Drag entertainer

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The intriguing history of the
Imperial Court system

By Jeff Jones
Special to the Las Vegas Bugle
August 1997

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Black CatJosé Julio Sarria is among the most important figures in LGBTQ history, having shaped the queer culture of San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century. Following his service in the military, Sarria returned to San Francisco and began working at the famed Black Cat Bar.

José Sarria, a veteran of World War II, entered gay history in the 1940s when he began to cover at work sometimes for his then-boyfriend Jimmy More, a waiter at The Black Cat bar on Montgomery Street in San Francisco.

In post-World War II San Francisco, an influx of gay and lesbian discharged veterans was swelling the city's gay communities.

While the Castro was still a primarily heterosexual, blue-collar neighborhood, the Black Cat had already developed an international reputation as a gay meeting place.

One day while José served drinks and the pianist was playing Bizet's Carmen, Sarria began singing arias to the opera.

Soon his arias were a big hit at the Black Cat, and Sarria's reputation for entertainment and performance was born.


Sarria candidate
José Sarria, Black Cat Bar, San Francisco, California, c. 1960. @onearchives

With McCarthyism making its heavy hand felt throughout America in the 1950s, social elements that deviated from the lifestyles portrayed on Leave It to Beaver and the I Love Lucy show began facing increasing political and governmental pressures. In San Francisco the McCarthy era ushered in a period of intense police harassment of gay people and gay establishments. California's sodomy law was still the law of the land. Gay men and women were arrested on a number of charges used to keep homosexuals in the closet and hidden.

Against this oppression, Sarria 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 catch us one by one."

Perhaps his true signature piece, however, was a tune with which he would nightly close the bar via a sing-along with the bar's patrons. Together they would sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens." Sometimes Sarria 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 Sarria's moral-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 simpley due to the clients it attracted.

Sarria was first openly gay candidate in world

Sarria candidate
José Sarria platform card, San Francisco, California, November 1961. c/o @onearchives

Police pressures, entrapment schemes, and raids continued into the 1950s with the gay bars eventually establishing a network to spread warnings of police sting operations. In 1961 Sarria did the heroic deed for which he is best known today: he filed as the first openly gay candidate in the world to run for public office. Running a quiet campaign by word-of-mouth, Sarria sought the position of San Francisco city supervisor, the same political office won by Harvey Milk 16 years later. Years later, Sarria claimed that his quiet campaign resulted from the lack of any appropriate suits or clothing for a drag queen to go around kissing babies!

Although Sarria did not win in 1961, he shocked both the city's gay and straight communities by garnering a hefty 5,600 votes. The realization that a gay voting bloc could wield considerable political clout in San Francisco is cited by a number of political strategists as resulting from Sarria's impressive vote tally.

Unfortunately, it was not until the 1970s that changes in San Francisco's voting ordinances moved from city-wide elections to the election of the Board of Supervisors by ward. By the mid-70s when the gay population was concentrating in the Castro district, this change in election law allowed for a number of minority candidates including the openly gay Harvey Milk to win election. At the time of Sarria's campaign sixteen years prior, Sarria would have had to win as one of the top vote getters elected by the entire city.

(Ironically, Sarria was the first person to sign on backing Harvey Milk's campaign for city supervisor. At that time other leading gay men and lesbians feared that Milk's openness would enganger gains with the city's existing, heterosexual progressive politicians.)

Facing on-going police pressures, the owner of The Black Cat, a straight man who had long kept the bar open against police harassment, closed the bar the day after Halloween in 1963. Within a week, police had closed five other gay bars. In 1963 San Francisco boasted thirty primarily gay and lesbian establishments. By 1964 only eighteen remained.

Her Most Imperial Majesty, Empress José I, the Widow Norton,
affectionately known as the Grand Mama

Sarria empress

Sarria and the various gay bar owners, however, did not simply give up hope. In early 1965 the owners united in forming the Tavern Guild and put on San Francisco's first large, public drag ball with Sarria heading it up. Over 500 lesbians and gay men bravely crossed police lines and braved flood lights and the flashing lights of police photographers to attend this ball. During it, Sarria was named the Queen of the Ball.

Soon Sarria considered: Why be a queen when he could be an empress? So, he proclaimed himself the Empress of San Francisco. To further enhance this title, Sarria drew upon the legend of the Emperor Norton, the fabulously eccentric 19th century San Francisco miner and rice baron who gained and lost at least one fortune. During his lifetime, the Emperor Norton dressed finely and proclaimed himself the Emperor of the United States and Canada, Protector of Mexico.

Heir in spirit, if not law, to this extraordinary man, Sarria named himself the Widow Norton and began annual pilgrimages to Norton's grave in nearby Colma where he and accompanying drag queens would pay their respects with flowers to Sarria's departed "spouse."

The Tavern Guild continued to draw the city's gay community together and began to regularly hold events including the annual drag ball. Eventually this ball marked the annual election of a city-wide Empress who succeeded Empress José I and subsequent Empresses. Evolving out of the Tavern Guild, José developed the bylaws adn functions of the Imperial Court of San Francisco, a group that sought, through drag shows and other functions, to raise money for at first primarily gay charities.

Sarria empress
José Julio Sarria, a.k.a. The Grand Mere, Absolute Empress I de San Francisco, and the Widow Norton, Black Cat Bar, San Francisco, California, c. 1960

Eventually the position of Emperor and the subsequent male and female lines of assorted princesses, dukes, and countesses were established to run and organize the charitable organizations: the older, more prestigious female line for drag queens (and eventually women in traditional female garb) and the male line for men in stereotypical male garb (and eventually women doing "male drag.")

By the early 1970s, the Court system established by Sarria had been franchised to first Vancouver, Canada, and then Portland. Over the next thirty years individual Courts answering to the Widow Norton have spread to over sixty areas (some based in cities while others cover whole states or provinces) in the United States and Canada.

Although under Sarria's guidance the Courts have avoided - by ruling - any partisan politics, they have funneled considerable funds into community charities. This work has ranged considerably. The Imperial Court of Toronto recently raines 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, thes people's bodies were often tossed into trash heaps. Similarly in the mid-1980s when no local charity would invest in prevention and care programs related to HIV/AIDS, the Royal Sovereign Imperial Court of All Kentucky raised thousands of dollars to establish the Louisville-based Community Health Trust. In 1996 alone, the Cincinnati court donated to local charities over $10,000 raised from Court events. Varying, of course, by the sixe of the community and its chapter court, the Coursts annually donate thousands of dollars towards helping their neighbors and espically gay communities.

Sarria empress

With courts now established form Alaska to San Diego in the west and Toronto to Kentucky in the east, Sarria's empire has become one of the gay community's little secrets. As a strong grassroots organization interlinked by monarchs attending the annual coronation balls of other courts, central direction from Sarria and his International Imperial Council, and now even the Internet, the Court system may well be the strongest if not the only guy organization with as widespread a local base.

José Sarria remained as busy as ever attending his children courts' coronation balls throughout the year. Here at these balls, he was not only the Widow Norton, the "Mama," the title he asks all within the Court to address him by. He also recently made his major motion picture debut via a cameo piece in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Sarria still lives in his beloved San Francisco. Although he remains the head of the Court system, Sarria has designated his heir to be Empress Nicole the Great of San Diego, his protege and a community activist of his own standing nationwide.

For over half a century, José Sarria, 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, adn even the occasional bad makeup job. He is truly a living hero and role model for all lesbigaytrans people or anyone who admires courage and optimism agtainst daunting odds.

In 1962, Sarria and other gay bar owners and employees formed the Tavern Guild, the country's first gay business association, which helped bar owners coordinate responses to police harassment.

After the Black Cat closed in 1963, Sarria helped found the Society for Individual Rights, an important homophile organization. And, in the mid-1960s, Sarria established the Imperial Court System, over which he reigned until 2007.

José Sarria died of adrenal cancer; he was 90.

sarria record

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