Monday, 9 September 2013

The Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement

It is most peculiar to think - in this day and age when "gay rights" equals "let's ape heterosexual mariage norms", and so-called "straight-acting" gays viciously decry campness, drag shows, Gay Pride marches and "men who have sex with men who they haven't previously met at a social function or online" - that in living memory there was a time when gay people could be arrested just for being gay.

In the UK it was bad enough, but in the USA ["Land of the Free"™] the opression was seemingly endless. Even in San Francisco. Yet there was one fantabulosa drag queen who was determined to put a stop to all that - José Sarria, Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco José I, The Widow Norton!

A precursor to Harvey Milk by almost two decades, this plucky subversive performer mixed political aspirations with mind-blowing campness - using his performing "role" as Madame Butterfly to sermonise about homosexual rights and leading a sing-along of "God Save the Nelly Queens..."

The Empress sadly died recently, and her funeral was last Friday. Camp to the end, The Widow Norton left strict instructions to mourners. Female titleholders from her Imperial Court - the gay organisation and charity he started in 1965 - were requested to wear "black/dark full length (understated) mourning attire, crowns, shoulder length veils covering both crowns and one’s face" along with "black gloves (opera length if wearing short sleeves)."

Males titleholders were "respectfully requested to wear dark suits, crowns and white gloves."

In its obituary, The San Francisco Chronicle led the tributes to this remarkable individual:
An Army veteran, José Sarria collected nearly 6,000 votes in an unsuccessful 1961 campaign for San Francisco supervisor that demonstrated the political clout of the city's gay community for the first time.

"He paved the way for every LGBT elected official in the United States," sad Paul Boneberg, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. "Before José Sarria, people couldn't grasp that a gay candidate could be taken seriously."

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, called Mr. Sarria a "fearless community leader."

"When José threw his hat into the ring for San Francisco supervisor more than 50 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," Leno said in a statement. "José's visionary and legendary leadership helped build the foundation for our successful modern-day LGBT civil rights movement."

Before his groundbreaking campaign, Mr. Sarria was known for his drag performances at the Black Cat on Montgomery Street, which helped make the spot one of the country's most famous gay bars before it closed in 1964. In the 1950s, police routinely arrested patrons of gay bars under California's anti-sodomy laws, but Mr. Sarria would often lead the Black Cat crowd outside to serenade the county jail across the street.

Boneberg said it was Mr. Sarria's outrage over the police raids that prompted his run for office.

"He didn't have a suit to wear. He had amazing outfits to perform drag, but he had to borrow a suit from a friend," said Bevan Dufty, a former San Francisco supervisor who dedicated the block of 16th Street in front of the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library as José Sarria Court in 2006. "He was saucy and flirty and off-colour."

In 1965, Mr. Sarria declared himself "Empress José I, The Widow Norton," an homage to the eccentric San Francisco figure Emperor Norton. With that act, Mr. Sarria founded the International Imperial Court System, a fundraising network that has raised millions for charitable causes through costume-ball fundraisers and remains one of the oldest LGBT organizations in the world.

Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a San Diego human rights commissioner and Mr. Sarria's successor in the fundraising organization's leadership, said Mr. Sarria was "the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement."

"José would say, 'I was tired of being treated like a second-class citizen,' " Murray-Ramirez said. "I hope the community will rediscover José and realize what an important person he was."
A pioneer, and a singularly remarkable person.

RIP, Your Majesty....

José Julio Sarria (12th December 1922 or 1923 – 19th August 2013)

[Eternal thanks to the lovely Mistress Maddie for enlightening us here at Dolores Delargo Towers about this fascinating character. Even if it was only after she died.]


  1. Yes it was a sad day, and even I hadn't known of her early history she had. What a hero. I never had the pleasure to meet her, but have met some member of the Imperial Court, cookie cutters of the Widow Norton, and they sure can throw a party! Very nice post darling, now lets get our G&T's and have a toast to the Empress the 1st!

    1. I have on my crown, my shoulder length veil and my opera length black gloves - you crack open the Hendricks, dear... Jx

  2. Darling you should have seen the streets around town on Friday, awash in drag queens in black, although "understated" for a drag queen is a very slippery concept.

    1. I sincerely hope you polished up the jet jewellery for the occasion. Jx


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