One of America’s gay rights pioneering leaders, José Julio Sarria, passed away quietly in his home in New Mexico this morning. He was 91.
Mr. Sarria was a proud World War II veteran and the very first openly gay candidate to run for public office in North America. He was a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. Mr. Sarria’s candidacy was the start of true gay political power and gave voice to gay people who were tired of being treated like second class citizens. San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, a close friend of Mr. Sarria’s and a long time Latino Gay Activist stated “José Julio Sarria was indeed the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement as an activist in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Mr. Sarria was born in San Francisco, California on December 22, 1922 as the only child of Maria Delores Maldonado of Colombia and Julio Sarria of San Francisco. Upon his graduation from Commerce High School in San Francisco he immediately enlisted in the US Army during World War II, rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant prior to his discharge in 1945.
After his discharge from the Army, José became one of the most famous drag queen entertainers in San Francisco. Most notable were his one-person operas at the historic Black Cat Bar in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965 Jose declared himself “Empress Jose I, The Widow Norton” after winning a drag queen competition at the Tavern Guild’s “Beaux Arts Ball”.
With that proclamation, the first Court Chapter of the International Court System was established.
Russell Roybal, First Imperial Grandson to Empress I José, The Widow Norton and Deputy Executive Director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force remembers his incredible work for the LGBT community, but also the personality he brought to his personal life and performances. “Words cannot express what a tremendous loss I feel today on the passing of José Sarria. He is an icon of the LGBT community, a hero, a mentor and a friend. José brought laughter, camp and fun to all of our lives and to the struggle not just for gay and lesbian liberation, but for all people. His legacy as a gay Latino leader, activist and drag queen will live on for all of us who share his commitment to the communities from which we come.”
Sarria took what had been a loose alliance of social groups and developed it into what now is the International Court System of the United States, Canada and Mexico with associated Chapters in over 68 cities across the three nations. “The Imperial Courts are like the gay Shriners/Elks of North America and have raised millions of dollars for charities these last 48 years, “stated City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez who succeeded Sarria in 2007 as the International Chairperson of this fraternal LGBT charity organization. In 1961, Sarria helped to form the League for Civil Education, one of the first gay rights organizations in the country and the first gay non-profit registered in California. In 1963 he co-founded the Society for Individual Rights (SIR).
Stuart Milk of the Harvey Milk Foundation says that the passing of Mr Sarria marks a significant moment in gay history. “José Sarria, founder of the International Court System showed us how to turn a night into a grand occasion and a grand occasion into a means of providing support. That support led so many who did not “fit in” to actually proudly stand out, together, creating a local sense of community and an international network that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local and major charities. 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’s extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end. And the extraordinary good that he did lives on. For the International Court System he was a guardian and an inspiration. For anyone who felt like they were different he was a defender of our dreams. He taught us how to turn an idea into action, how to wear a tiara and how to laugh and ultimately he taught us how to lift up and nourish a marginalized community. We will forever keep Jose in our history books and in our hearts.”
Toni Atkins, the majority leader of the California State Assembly remembers his humanitarian work. “I was sad to learn that our community has lost José Sarria. With a larger than life personality and heart to match- he was a national LGBT icon. To San Diego, Jose was the recipient of the Harvey Milk Humanitarian Award at San Diego’s first Harvey Milk Breakfast. I was honored to know him and proud to call him my friend.”
In 1961 when Sarria declared himself a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors his ninth place finish from a field of over thirty candidates, though a loss in the race, shook the political establishment and is recognized as the beginning of the gay political clout- paving the way for Harvey Milk's election in 1977.
Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force says of Sarria “Today we lost a pioneer, trailblazer and hero in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. I am deeply saddened on the passing of civil rights legend José Sarria. The Task Force honored Jose Sarria at the National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change in 2005 for his over 50 years of leadership and activism on behalf of LGBT people and our families. He was an original that will be sorely missed.”
Speaker John A. Pérez of the California Assembly noted that Sarria had impact beyond California, his influence was global. “José Sarria was a monumental figure in the LGBT Community whose contributions to our movement cannot be overstated. His trailblazing run for public office as an openly gay man laid the groundwork for LGBT Californians to run for public office proudly and openly. But José's refusal to be silenced or shamed back into the closet--in an era where LGBT People were routinely discriminated against--was the greatest contribution to our movement. José's courageous personal example of living life openly, with pride and dignity, gave so many others the courage and confidence they needed to do the same. José's death is a great loss for our community, and it's fitting that it drew to a close just days after an historic victory in the Supreme Court that could never have happened without brave souls like José Sarria leading the way for all of us.”
José Julio Sarria has received countless honors and awards. In 2006, after a campaign led by City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, 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 becoming the first openly gay citizen 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," said former S.F. Supervisor Bevan Dufty who authored the naming of Jose Sarria Place in the Castro. Sarria collected many GLBT historic documents during his life and materials from his collection comprise the “José Sarria Papers” at the LGBT Historic Society of San Francisco and other papers are at the Smithsonian Institution.
"José Julio Sarria's passing today is an enormous loss. 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. During such a formative time for the LGBT and Latino communities it is crucial that we remember and honor the exceptional people like José for making our successes possible. He will forever reside in the hearts and minds of the LGBT and Latino communities and their allies. Thank you, José." said Wilson Cruz, national spokesperson for GLAAD.
José Julio Sarria will be buried in his beloved San Francisco. Funeral and Memorial Service arrangements will be announced by the Imperial Court of San Francisco.