Jose Julio Sarria Dies At Age 91
Nowadays, it’s not that unusual to find LGBT persons running for political office. Tammy Baldwin is Senator of Wisconsin; Jared Polis is a Senator in Colorado, and Christine Quinn is running for Mayor of New York City, to name a few. But to run as a gay man for San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 takes guts. LGBT politicians owe their current positions to a trailblazing icon for equality, Jose Sarria.
“The Rosa Parks of the Gay Rights Movement” – Nicole Ramirez, San Diego City Commissioner
Although he did not win the Board of Supervisors’ election, Jose Julio Sarria has the distinction of being the first openly gay American to run for office. California Senator Mark Leno called Sarria a “fearless community leader.” “When Jose threw his hat into the ring for San Francisco Supervisor more than fifty years ago, he became one of the first to publicly proclaim that there is no reason, constitutional or otherwise, to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people first-class citizenship, respect and dignity under the law. Jose’s visionary and legendary leadership helped build the foundation for our successful, modern-day LGBT civil rights movement.”
In his honor, in 2006, the City of San Francisco named a section of 16th Street in the city’s Castro district Jose Sarria Court. Although Sarria did not win a seat on the Board of Supervisors (with his 6,000 votes), his indefatigable support of Harvey Milk, who did become the first openly gay person in 1977, helped Milk be elected to the Board of Supervisors. He supported Milk’s first campaign in 1973 as well. Sarria’s and Milk’s Castro District became a gay voting block in San Francisco.
Born in San Francisco, Sarria attained the rank of Staff Sargent in WWII before being honorably discharged at the end of his service in 1945.He was a drag Queen, using the name Empress Jose, the Widow Norton as well as The Nightingale of Montgomery Street where he performed at San Francisco’s The Black Cat until it closed in 1964.
“He was a national LGBT icon” – Toni Atkins, Ca. State Assembly Majority Leader
Besides being a waiter, drag queen, LGBT rights activist, Sarria formed The Tavern Guild, the county’s first Gay Business Association. He also developed an International Court System from a loose alliance of social groups, with associated Chapters in over sixty-eight cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico. Said Nicole Ramirez, who succeeded Sarria in 2007 as the International Chairperson of this fraternal LGBT charity organization, “ the Imperial Courts are like the gay Shriners/Elks of North America and have raised millions of dollars.” In 1961, he helped to form one of the first gay rights organizations in the U.S. and the first gay non-profit registered in California, the League for Civil Education. Two years later, he co-founded the Society for Individual Rights (SIR)
For his efforts, Sarria was given numerous awards, including the Harvey Milk Humanitarian Award. His collection of GLBT historic documents are at the LGBT Historic Society of San Francisco and the Smithsonian Institution.
“Making Successes Possible” – Wilson Cruz, National Spokesman for GLAAD
“His work as a politician, humanitarian, and performer was unprecedented, and has rightfully earned him a place in history. He was an icon who stood his ground for himself and so many others when it was hardest to do so. He will forever reside in the hearts and minds of the LGBT and Latino communities and their allies. Thank you.”