by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The first openly Gay man to run for political office in the United States, José Julio Sarria, passed away August 19, at the age of 90.
Whenever one of our own passes, and I have to write a news lead like that it just seems wrong. The truth is, we don't have very many heroes or role models in the community. So when one of them leaves us, it's a loss that is felt far and wide. Make no mistake, a legend has left us and we must never forget Mama José's legacy, history, and example.
José was more widely known around San Francisco and the rest of the world as Empress José I, The Widow Norton. He ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, and although he was defeated, his campaign alone made American history.
EARLY MILK SUPPORTER
Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk's nephew, released a statement on Facebook saying: '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, who became Empress José I in honor of Joshua Norton, a San Francisco resident who in 1859 named himself Emperor of the United States, took the self-appointed title of Empress and also instituted the Imperial Court System, which raises money through drag shows and is reportedly the second-largest LGBT organization in the world, with 65 chapters throughout North America.
José had been ill for several months and died at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Last year José said he had been diagnosed with a rare cancer in the adrenal glands. He declined chemotherapy treatment.
In a statement, Gay California State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said LGBTs of all stripes lost a 'dear friend and fearless community leader who will forever hold a place in our hearts.'
'When José threw his hat into the ring for San Francisco supervisor more than 50 years ago, he became one of the first to publicly proclaim that there is no reason, constitutional or otherwise, to deny LGBT people first-class citizenship, respect, and dignity under the law,' Leno said.
He added, 'José'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.'
URGED GAYS TO COME OUT
Known for his years of performing at the famous North Beach Gay bar, the Black Cat, in the 1950s and 1960s, José entertained customers in drag as he sang satirical versions of popular songs while beseeching Gay patrons to come out, imploring them, 'United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.'
Once, during one of the police raids and sting operations of the era, José was arrested for solicitation at the St. Francis Hotel, leading him to abandon his dream of being a teacher.
But José 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 José 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 José could win one of the six seats up for grabs that fall, party leaders recruited two dozen people to enter the race. José ended up in ninth place on election night.
José later said it was a mistake 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. 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.'
OUR ROSA PARKS
Nicole Murray-Ramirez, San Diego's human rights commissioner and José's successor in the fundraising organization's leadership (as Empress Nicole the Great, Queen Mother of the Americas), said José was 'the Rosa Parks of the Gay rights movement.'
'José would say, 'I was tired of being treated like a second-class citizen,' Murray-Ramirez recalled. 'I hope the community will rediscover José and realize what an important person he was.'
José received countless honors and awards. In 2006, after a campaign led by 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, thus making Sarria the first openly Gay man 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,' Dufty, who authored the legislation naming José Sarria Place in the Castro, said in a statement.
José collected many LGBT historic documents during his life and materials from his collection comprise the José Sarria Papers at the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco.
Additionally, José was honored by the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee with its Lifetime Achievement grand marshal title in 2005. A plaque outlining his contributions is embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the San Francisco Public Library at One José Sarria Court.
GAYSHA STARR REMEMBERS
Seattle drag legend Gaysha Starr, who reigned as Olympia XXIX, Empress of Seattle 1999-2000 and was the recipient of the Double Eagle Award from Empress Nicole in February 2013, said, 'As a Gay man, a person of color, a drag queen, and an activist, he dared to dream a world of pageantry and community service that in turn would create a place for people to aspire to and fit in - the International Court System.'
'Before social media and LGBT became so mainstream, the International Court System did a lot of its fundraising and community service the old-fashioned way - in the bars,' said Gaysha. 'And while most would argue that most of the Court Chapters have grown to be irrelevant or 'not with the times,' we can't deny them of their contributions as our GLBTQ communities fought for HIV/AIDS awareness and funding, equal rights for both sexual minorities and Transgendered people, to most recently Marriage Equality for all.'
'I'm not sure if José would even remember me in the sea of Monarchs who bowed down to him in respect, but I do know he is someone who fought for rights that you - drag queen, titleholder, or LGBT-next-door - take for granted every day,' said Gaysha.
'The next time I wear my crown, or see an 'entertainer' performing onstage, I will be thankful to icons like Empress José as he paved the way for us to no longer to be afraid of being ourselves and having the same rights as everyone else,' Gaysha continued.
'Because of Empress José, the Widow Norton, and his vision, he gave a large part of the GLBTQ community the stage and platform that now a click of a button on a computer keyboard can,' said Gaysha. 'It's funny how a symbol of a crown or a medallion could give someone a sense of belonging and accomplishment. It could give some power and others heartache but, I think for most of us titleholders it gave us something we didn't have as we came to terms with our sexual orientation or gender identity. It gave us confidence and validation.'
'I still remember the first day I saw the original and massive State Crown on Seattle Empress Olympia XXIII Paula in 1993. It gave me something to aspire to and gave me a purpose as I learned the craft of drag,' she said. 'Six years later I would be crowned one of the youngest titleholders with the honor and the first Asian Pacific Islander Empress of Seattle, Olympia XXIX, The Empress of Good Fortune.'
'I equate meeting José in the '90s like a queen today meeting RuPaul,' said Gaysha. 'These iconic drag queens who broke barriers while creating their own success. They would not take no for an answer, all the while being larger-than-life characters.'
TRIBUTES FROM ALL OVER
Vancouver, B.C.'s Joan-e Edwards, also a member of the Court System, said, 'Today is a sad and historic day, as many of us across North America mourn the loss and celebrate the life of José Julio Sarria, Absolute Empress I de San Francisco and founder of the International Court System. José's mark in LGBT history should not be underscored. The laws, rights, and securities we sometimes now take for granted are as a result of the sheer bravery and vision of LGBT pioneers like José. Veteran. Activist. Politician. Entertainer. Visionary. Queen. I will forever be grateful to José. The Court system has led me, and thousands of others, to meeting great friends and chosen family. It has also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for our community charities. No small thing. I had the privilege having lunch at José's home in Palm Springs years ago. Of course he was a very different man than his public character. He seemed more fascinated by my friend Ralph and I than even we were with him! There was a warm crinkle in his eyes I saw when we were discussing that I did drag for a living. It was a simple awesome moment where I saw his sheer delight and awe that his dream indeed lives on in each and every one of us queens. José, I salute you! Hip-hip, hooray! Hip-hip, hooray! Hip-hip, hooray!'
Olympia I Scotty I, the first-ever Empress of Seattle, told SGN, 'I met José in late 1971 or early 1972 at the Jack Tar Hotel, San Francisco, on the occasion of Empress Crystal's stepping down. I might also add this was my first visit to San Francisco and my first out-of-town coronation as Olympia I. I had finally made it to Mecca and José was the Grand Pooh-Bah! From day one José treated me with the utmost respect, and instilled in me the importance of humility, humanity, and history. Over the years when we would meet there was always that warm touch of his hand on mine (everybody else got a warm hand elsewhere) and a 'Hello, my dear.'
'A couple years ago in Tacoma at Doug's stepping down, José was in attendance and the most amazing thing happened. I was on the dais when José approached to address the room,' said Scotty I. 'Facing me - now this was from José to me, a kid off a dairy farm on Whidbey Island - he said, 'Scotty, I am humbled to be in your presence.' I was dumbfounded. I said that he had it wrong, 'It is I that is humbled.' He wouldn't hear of it. I cried.'
'Yesterday at work Bev called from Las Vegas to tell me of José's passing. I cried.' He said. 'This was not supposed to happen ... José should have lived forever. Now he is a sweet memory of a kind and courageous man.'
Barry Burns, President of the Board of Directors, Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle - The Olympic and Rainier Empire, and Emperor XXIV of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon, said, 'Mama José was truly a mother to us all. Wise, inspirational, loving, kind, and generous as a mother should be, but also a taskmaster who did not shy away from reminding us that we had a purpose in this world and that the Imperial Courts were more than crowns and gowns. His idea that we could harness our ego, talents, and flair as a force for good in our communities resonates throughout each and every GLBT charitable organization that exists in the U.S. and Canada today. We salute and honor José and say a heartfelt thanks for his stellar example of a life well lived.'
Nina Maxwell, Seattle Empress XXXVII and Heir Apparent to Nicole the Great, said, 'While I am deeply saddened by the passing of Empress José Sarria, I encourage everyone to take this opportunity to look back at the tremendous hard work and accomplishments of this LGBT pioneer and celebrate his inspirational courage to live openly in his truth during a time when being Gay was not only illegal but very dangerous.'
'The world is a better place because of José Sarria and now it is time for us to take the torch and continue the fight for GLBT civil rights and equality,' said Maxwell.
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