José Julio Sarria, was born December 12, 1922, son of Maria Dolores Maldonado and Julio Sarria in San Francisco, California. The Grand Mere, Absolute Empress I de San Francisco, the Widow Norton, José; a proud openly gay Latino, drag queen and one of the great iconic American pioneering political activist and leaders of the modern day LGBT Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements, gracefully and peacefully passed on from this life after a long battle with cancer at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico at 7:02 AM on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 in his 90th year blessing this earth.
In his early years was a student of the performing arts and languages. After graduating high school and the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Sarria enlisted in the United States Army, honorably serving his country in the European theatre as aide to Colonel Theodore Mataxis. Following Jose's honorable service and discharge in 1947, he returned home to his beloved San Francisco.
Upon his return, a young Sarria would frequent a local bar called the "Black Cat" on Montgomery Street near Broadway at the center of San Francisco's Beat and Bohemian scene. He became the lover of one of the waiters, Jimmy Moore, and on occasion he would substitute for Jimmy when he was unable to work. He was later hired as a waiter and later became the hostess. The owner, Solomon Stoumen, noticed José's ability to provide entertainment and later encouraged him to create performances to draw customers on the weekends. Before long, Sarria would be billed as "The Nightingale of Montgomery Street" performing full blown operatic productions, parodies of torch songs and vignettes, all filled with sexual innuendos or political or social commentary. He played to standing rooms only and often patrons stood outside of the bar to hear his performances.
The Black Cat stage became the vehicle of Sarria's powerful politically active and community voice of purpose. During a time of McCarthyism, abusive police raids and Alcohol & Beverage harassment of gay establishments, the "Black Cat" stood up to these institutions via the legal courts and community support. Sarria was a prominent drag queen and political activist that was unafraid of standing up against the establishment. Sarria used humor and his performance art to serve as the backdrop of his political activism and street level organizing that cultivated, educated and empowered a sense of gay pride, identity and unity in the gay community of San Francisco. At the end of his Sunday performances he made the audience stand up and hold hands and sing his famed "God Save the Nellie Queens" as a way of instilling solidarity for the gay community on hand and beyond the walls of the Black Cat. He would encourage audiences to be united and proud of who they were, instilling in all that "united we stand, divided they get us one by one." Sarria would remain as the headliner at the Black Cat until it's closing in 1963 after multiple police raids.
In 1960, Sarria, a very proud Latino and prominent drag queen, founded the League of Civil Education, lending his political voice to educate the community at large about homosexuality. To raise attention for the cause and after years of oppressive police raids on gay bars and unrelenting arrests of Gays, Sarria decided to run for public office. While the community at large was not aware of Sarria's homosexual politics, Sarria had organized the gay community and collected the signatures needed to qualify him for the 1961 Fall elections of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
In 1961, the visionary, Jose Julio Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He placed fifth with over 5,600 votes from among a field of 29 candidates. Jose's courageous run for public office put the gay vote on the American political map. As Jose himself put it, "From that day on, nobody ran for anything without knocking on the door of the gay community."
Sarria also co-founded the Society for Individual Rights, an early homophile organization that was assertive and self-confident, proving and giving greater voice to the gay vote in the community. By design The Society for Individual Rights was built by street level organizing, it was more democratic and inclusive, and this new vision for gay political activism would become a model, paving the way for our modern gay political organizations that followed.
In 1963, San Francisco gay bar owners and Sarria founded the Tavern Guild of San Francisco, organizing Club owners and gay patrons to stand united in the fight against growing police corruption, raids and arrests of gay club owners and patrons.
In 1964 at Beau Arts Ball that was hosted by the Tavern Guild of San Francisco, José was crowned Queen of the Ball. Later he was to say "we're all queens and why become a queen when you can become empress"; thus he proclaimed himself Empress of San Francisco and later proclaimed that he was the wife of the late Emperor Joshua Norton. The Tavern Guild refused to allow him to go around in female attire so he dressed up in a suit, tie, hat, a variety of necklaces and jewels and hints of make up to attend various functions. He had his courtiers and held court as the Empress.
In 1965 Sarria founded The Imperial Court of San Francisco. The Tavern Guild was the original owner and the Empress was its official hostess. As in any organization the start was a little rocky but José held firm and a Privy Council was formed to govern the office of Empress. Based upon European royalty various areas of San Francisco were noted as "colony or enclave" where Czarinas were appointed to oversee these areas such as Polk Street, The Castro, The Tenderloin and South of Market. These Czarinas, former Empresses and other individuals served on the Privy Council.
In the years that followed Sarria lead the Imperial Court of San Francisco modeled after his early political activism and street level organizing to educate and cultivate a greater community sense of gay pride, identity and a unity. Electing Empresses at the Tavern Guild's Annual Beau Arts Ball became an annual event that drew audiences in growing numbers. In order to vote you had to buy a ticket to the ball, so contestants solicited votes and the person with most votes and admirers at the ball was elected and crowned Empress.
In 1972, a group of men formed the Council of Emperors of San Francisco and elected their first Emperor that year. In 1976 the Emperors took José to Woodlawn Cemetery to visit the gravesite of her late husband Joshua. (A plot was purchased close to where Joshua is buried and where José will be close to her husband.) This was to become an annual pilgrimage and where the elected Emperors of San Francisco takes his oath of office the day after his election. The Emperors and Empresses had separate coronations and courts until 1983 when they held a joint coronation and election of the Emperor and Empress.
The visionary Sarria recognized the successes he and his Imperial Court of San Francisco had uniting the gay community of San Francisco. In the years following the founding of the Imperial Court of San Francisco, Sarria would work to expand on his vision and began working with prominent drag queens, Gay community leaders and activists outside of San Francisco to share in his vision of a greater united, politically active and charitable Gay community. By 1969, Sarria set out to expand and create Imperial Courts and Empires across North America modeled after the Imperial Court of San Francisco. In 1970, Sarria and his Imperial Court of San Francisco helped establish Imperial Courts in Vancouver, B.C. and Portland, Oregon making them the first Imperial Courts outside of San Francisco. Sarria and the Imperial Court of San Francisco would go on to empower the creation of over 35 courts in the decade that followed. Sarria then spent the next two decades expanding the growth of Imperial Courts and Empires across North America. By 1995 at the 30th Anniversary of the 1965 founding of Imperial Court of San Francisco, under Sarria's leadership over 60 Imperial Courts and Empires had been established throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Sarria marked 1996 as the year of one of his fondest and most honored achievements. Sarria after several earlier attempts, had successfully established a united LGBT International association of charitable community organizations, officially founding The International Court Council and the International Court System, united as family and community in the fight for greater global education of LGBT Civil Rights, LGBT Social Justice, and charitable community service. An honor Sarria as its founder and leader profoundly and proudly shared with all Imperial Courts and Empires that had joined in embracing his long held vision of this historic 1996 formation of a united charitable International Court System.
Sarria's honored leadership, contributions and his historic legacy as the visionary leader, educator and official voice of the Imperial Court of San Francisco and The International Court System that followed, remained until he abdicated in 2007. Even thereafter, Sarria remained a formidable guiding voice to The Imperial Court of San Francisco and the International Court System.