December 12, 1922 or 1923 (some things can be left shrouded in mystery) – August 19, 2013
I have said before that there are very few public figures these days for whom I would shed tears but I confess unashamedly that they fell profusely when I heard of the death of Jose Sarria, one of the early warriors in our gay Civil Wars.
Jose did not look like a warrior. He was little, effeminate and in his younger days, slim, which ran to a bit of plumpness as the years accumulated. But a fighter he was, and a fearless one at that.
In the forties and early fifties, gay bars in San Francisco (and in most cities) paid regular bribes to the local police, to ensure that things went smoothly for them. But in San Francisco, in 1951, Sol Stouman, the owner of The Black Cat Café – ironically across the street from the county jail – declared he was through paying this “protection” money.
Of course, the local police were all over him like flies on you-know-what. Night after night, a regular parade of uniformed officers wended their way through the bar crowds, intending to intimidate customers into leaving. Another parade of cute vice officers in tight jeans mingled with the patrons, inviting passes and arrests – if a bar accumulated too many arrests for indecent behavior, its license could be pulled – as indeed eventually happened to The Black Cat.
Until that time, however, one of The Black Cat’s big draws, and a chief reason for the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, was a willowy drag queen who sang mildly risqué songs and – eventually – opera parodies – Jose Sarria’s ‘Carmen’ alone was guaranteed to fill the house.
Not only did Jose not cave in to the police harassment, he boldly thumbed his nose at them, uniformed and not, by adding a special feature to his show. At the evening’s end, he would invite the patrons – the ones who hadn’t been frightened away – to put their arms around one another’s shoulders and join him in a rousing chorus of God Bless Us Nelly Queens (sung to the tune of God Save Our Noble Queen). Not long after he launched this ritual, he began inviting the boys to the sidewalk out front, where they serenaded the guys in the jailhouse across the street. Of course, this wasn’t about being nelly – it was about being gay, about the right to be gay, and not be ashamed of it. Jose implored gays of the times to come out: “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.” A startling message in the fifties, but one that perfectly exemplified Jose’s deepest beliefs, beliefs for which he never ceased fighting. Of course, he was arrested, and harassed endlessly, as he knew he would be. It isn’t taking the bullet that makes a man a hero, it’s his willingness to take the bullet. Jose was ever willing.
Much of gay life in the fifties could be painful. The only antidote we had for the pain was laughter. We laughed at them, we laughed at ourselves, we laughed at life – and when we all got to laughing together, why, then, the pain didn’t hurt so badly. Jose gave us laughter. That’s not so small a thing as one might think, looking back. I suspect many a gay life was saved at the time by virtue of laughter.
In 1961, Sarria helped to form the League for Civil Education. In 1963 he co-founded the Society for Individual Rights (SIR). He was instrumental as well in founding the Tavern Guild, an association made up mainly of San Francisco bar owners. Even the concept of gay rights organizations was a new one in those days. In today’s vernacular, Jose was already on the cutting edge of political activism.
In 1961, Jose ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first openly gay candidate for political office in the United States. He lost, but his candidacy made politicians aware for the first time of the power of the gay vote. After Jose, no politician dared run for anything in San Francisco without considering gay voters. Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk’s nephew, had this to say on Facebook: “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.” Milk called Jose, “A defender of our dreams.” What a beautiful phrase! It’s hard to imagine anything more important than that.
During the Gold Rush era, an eccentric San Franciscan, Joshua Norton, declared himself the Emperor of San Francisco. In 1965, Jose Sarria declared himself Norton’s widow, the Empress of San Francisco. At the same time, he established the Imperial Court. Today, queens vie each year in hotly contested elections to be named empress, a decidedly high profile position, but Jose remained throughout his life the Dowager Empress, a title no one challenged. Each year, he would appear with a small entourage at a cemetery in Colma and lay flowers upon the Emperor’s grave. It was both amusing, and touching, to see this increasing frail old “lady” each year perform this solemn ceremony, with never a wink nor a tongue in cheek. It may be that as the years passed, she really did begin to think of herself as Norton’s widow. Or maybe she just believed she was the widow he deserved. Whichever, she always played it straight.
Jose has said he made a mistake in not running again the following year for the Board of Supervisors, thinking it likely he might have won the second time around. One can only wonder what a difference that might have made.
Be that as it may, Jose remained active in the years that followed, taking part in Pride parades (more often than not in Empress drag) and gay activities around the country, and supporting gay causes. He even made a brief appearance, as himself (i.e., the Widow Norton) in the 1995 movie, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” In time, however, the years and the onset of cancer forced him into a kind of semi-retirement, but his voice was never fully stilled. And of course, there were those annual pilgrimages to Colma, always covered by the local news.
Today, gays march in the streets; they pop up in mainstream movies and television, and in many places are legally married. I suspect that to some of today’s young gays, this catalog of Jose’s accomplishments must seem quaint, even at times silly. I can assure you, they were not.
It is far easier to come along afterward and make things better; it is infinitely harder to blaze the trail where no one has gone before – that takes a special kind of courage, and certainly no less for having involved wearing a dress. As Burns so aptly put it, “A man’s a man for a’ that.”
A generation of gay men were encouraged by Jose’s brave defiance of overzealous authorities to think that perhaps he was right, that they needn’t be ashamed either of who and what they were – a lipstick-red signpost pointing down the road to the entire gay liberation movement.
The LCE was one of the first gay rights organizations in the country and the first gay non-profit registered in California. The Tavern Guild and SIR helped many gays with legal advice and legal fees, at a time when most attorneys wouldn’t touch a homosexual case with a ten foot Pole. Jose’s Imperial Court grew to be the largest gay fund raising organization in the world, raising millions for gay causes, a fact for which in time many AIDS patients had reason to be grateful. These were not small accomplishments, but giant steps forward for gays of the time, and were a major part of the foundation upon which the entire gay liberation movement rested.
I did not meet Jose Sarria face to face until, I believe, 1986, when I stopped in at the Galleon Restaurant and Lounge in San Francisco for an after dinner drink on a Saturday night, and found him serving cocktails. I was thrilled to meet this man who had long been one of my heroes, and I somewhat hesitantly asked him if he would consider entertaining us with a song. I shouldn’t have hesitated – once a performer, always a performer. He went to the piano bar and did one of his old songs for us, I don’t remember now which one (“Wait Till Your Son Turns Nelly,” perhaps? any gay man of a certain age knows scores of those titles).
The crowd loved it, of course, but I could not helping wondering how many of those laughing and clapping young men even knew that it was thanks in large part to the man mugging so outrageously for them at the piano that they could sit and enjoy the show without fear of the cops crashing through the doors and dragging them away. At one point in his performance, Jose glanced in my direction and winked. I suspect he was wondering much the same.
Jose Sarria was small in stature, but in my mind, he shall always remain a giant. I can only hope that wherever he has gone, someone will have prepared for him a throne worthy of our little Empress. I bid you safe rest now, our good and faithful friend.
You have earned it.
Comment by Mykola Dementiuk
A wonderful obit.
A few years ago Victor Banis sent me a small booklet from 1967, a theater brochure from the Farewell Performance of Verdi’s Aida, starring Jose Julio Sarria.
“Who the hell is this?” I wondered, but since I had spent my hippie years, the late 1960s in San Francisco, I suppose Victor assumed I would be wise to his gay companions. Well, I wasn’t, my interests were in tricking on the streets but mostly in getting a place to sleep or a good meal beside the dope I was already infesting my existence with. Dope was certainly easy in those days. But, oh those were the days! Gay, hippie or straight, the world seemed like a very lovely place back then. I had just turned 18 and what the hell did I know of growing up? But with the passing of time and I sure had a lot to get used to it.
Anyway, Victor’s brochure had a lovely velveteen cover which seemed to hold the contents in special hold, and a good selection for preserving the booklet, I thought. It was the playbook from the show, with the cast and stars of Aida, and even had a few back photos of JoseSarria, nude as a baby lying on a carpet, one of millions tucked away in family drawers across America, what a joy those were.
Jose Sarria just recently passed away last month and Victor has written a beautiful and moving obit. I pulled out the booklet and offered to share with him. “No,” he said, “the booklet is for you.”
Thanks Victor for your friendship and sharing your memory of Jose Sarria. I’m sure that in the magic land of the Great Beyond we’ll certainly get together and lift one up to each other and to Jose Sarria, who it sounds like an ideal companion to get drunk and stoned with. Think of it, we’ll be young and in San Francisco all over again, what could be better?
Here’s to Jose, RIP.