In Memoriam: Jose Julio Sarria

by on August 20, 2013  •  In Culture, Transgender
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The first American to seek public office as an openly gay candidate – Jose Julio Sarria of San Francisco – died today at the age of  91. Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. His ninth place finish – out of more than 30 candidates – stunned the city and opened the path for Harvey Milk and later candidates.


…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…”

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.


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