4119 Dietz Loop NW,
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM 87107-3212
Julio Sarria, a veteran of World War II entered gay history
in the 1940s when he began to cover at work, sometimes, for
his then boyfriend Jimmy Moore, as a waiter at “The
Black Cat ” bar on Montgomery Street in San Francisco.
In post-World War II San Francisco saw an influx of gay and
lesbian discharged veterans that swelled the city's gay communities.
While the Castro was still a primarily heterosexual, blue-collar
neighborhood, the Black Cat had already developed an international
reputation as a gay meeting place. One day while José
served drinks and the pianist was playing Bizet's Carmen,
he began singing arias from the opera. Soon his arias were
a big hit at the Black Cat, and José's reputation for
entertainment and performance was born.
McCarthyism making its heavy hand felt throughout America
in the 1950s, social elements that deviated from the lifestyles
portrayed on Leave It to Beaver and the I Love Lucy shows
began facing increasing political and governmental pressures.
In San Francisco, the McCarthy era ushered in a period of
intense police harassment of gay people and gay establishments.
California's sodomy law was still the law of the land. Gay
men and women were arrested on a number of charges used to
keep homosexuals in the closet and hidden. Against this oppression,
José gave the city's gay community hope with a dash
of laughter. His impromptu arias would contain lyrics that
would warn people of police entrapment schemes if he learned
of them. He also coined some of the first known statements
to instill gay pride with such slogans as: "There is
nothing wrong with being gay, the crime is getting caught"
or "United we stand, divided they will pick us off one
his true signature piece, however, was a tune with which he
would nightly to close the bar via a sing-along with the bar's
patrons. Together they would sing "God Save Us Nelly
Queens." Sometimes José would lead the bar's patrons
and drag entertainers to the nearby jail to serenade the gay
people being held there.
Black Cat's fame and José's morale-boosting campaigns
eventually led the police to attempt to close the bar in 1949
on the grounds that it attracted gay people. The owners and
clients, however, sued and in a decision by the California
Supreme Court, the justices issued a ruling that a bar could
not be closed simply due to the clients it attracted.
Police pressures, entrapment schemes, and raids continued
into the 1950s with the gay bars eventually establishing a
network to spread warnings of police sting operations. In
1961 José did the heroic deed for which he is best
known today: he filed as the first openly gay candidate in
the world to run for public office. Running a quiet campaign
by word-of-mouth, he sought the position of a San Francisco
city supervisor, the same political office won by Harvey Milk
16 years later. Years later, José claimed that his
quiet campaign resulted from the lack of any appropriate suits
or clothing for a drag queen to go around kissing babies!
José did not win in 1961, he shocked both the city's
gay and straight communities by gathering a hefty 5,600 votes
coming in 9th out of a field of 32 candidates. The realization
that a gay voting bloc could wield considerable political
clout in San Francisco is cited by a number of political strategists
resulting from José’s impressive vote tally.
Unfortunately, it was not until the 1970s that changes in
San Francisco's voting ordinances moved from citywide elections
to the election of the Board of Supervisors by district. By
the mid-70s when the gay population was concentrating in the
Castro district, this change in election laws allowed for
a number of minority candidates including the openly gay Harvey
Milk to win election. At the time of José's campaign
sixteen years prior, he would have been one of the top vote
getters to be elected by the entire city.
José was the first person to sign on to back Harvey
Milk's campaign for city supervisor. At that time other leading
gay men and lesbians feared that Milk's openness would endanger
gains with the city's existing, heterosexual progressive politicians.
on-going police pressures, the owner of The Black Cat, a straight
man who had long kept the bar open against police harassment,
closed the bar the day after Halloween in 1963. Within a week,
police had closed five other gay bars. In 1963 San Francisco
boasted thirty primarily gay and lesbian establishments. By
1964 only eighteen remained.
and the various gay bar owners, however, did not simply give
up hope. In early 1965 the owners united to form the Tavern
Guild of San Francisco and put on San Francisco's first large,
public drag ball, the Beaux Arts Ball. At its third Ball at
the Winterland Ballroom, over 500 lesbians and gay men bravely
crossed police lines, braved floodlights and the flashing
lights of police photographers to attend this ball. During
it, José was named the Queen of the Ball.
José considered - “why be a queen when he could
be an empress?” So, he proclaimed himself the Empress
of San Francisco. Later, to further enhance this title, Sarria
drew upon the legend of the Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton,
the fabulously eccentric 19th century San Franciscan miner
and rice baron who gained and lost at least one fortune. During
his lifetime, Emperor Norton dressed finely and proclaimed
himself the Emperor of the United States and Canada, Protector
of Mexico. Heir in spirit, if not by law, to this extraordinary
man, Sarria named himself the Widow Norton and began annual
pilgrimages to Norton's grave in nearly Colma where he, accompanied
by the Emperors of San Francisco, drag queens and members
of the gay community, would pay their respects with flowers
to Sarria's departed "spouse." For the past 30 years
José’s annual pilgrimage to Joshua’s gravesite
is full with fanfare, pomp and camp and attended by people
from all walks of life from throughout the United States,
Canada and Mexico.
Tavern Guild continued to draw the city's gay community together
and began to regularly hold events including its annual drag
ball. Eventually this ball marked the annual election of a
citywide Empress who succeeded Empress I José and subsequent
Empresses. Evolving out of the Tavern Guild, José developed
the bylaws and functions of the Imperial Court of San Francisco,
a group that sought through drag shows and other functions
to raise money for, at first, primarily gay charities. Eventually
the position of Emperor and the subsequent male and female
lines of assorted princesses, dukes, and countesses were established
to run and organize the charitable organization: the older,
more prestigious female line for drag queens (and eventually
women in traditional female garb) and the male line for men
in stereotypical male garb (and eventually women doing "male
the early 1970s, the Court system established by José
had been franchised to first Vancouver, Canada, and then Portland.
Over the next thirty years individual Courts answering to
the Widow Norton have spread to nearly seventy areas (some
based in cities while others cover whole states or provinces)
in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
José's guidance the Courts have avoided partisan politics
by ruling out participation and only supporting bipartisan
issues. They have raised considerable funds for needy community
charities. This work has ranged considerably. The Imperial
Court of Toronto recently raised funds to buy body bags and
a burial ground for a more dignified closure to the lives
of poor people who died of HIV/AIDS in Tijuana, Mexico. Previous
to the Court's help, these people's bodies were often tossed
into trash heaps. Similarly in the mid-1980s when no local
charity would invest in prevention and care programs related
to HIV/AIDS, the Royal Sovereign Imperial Court of All Kentucky
raised thousands of dollars to establish the Louisville-based
Community Health Trust. Additionally, the Imperial Court of
San Francisco along with the California courts raised thousands
of dollars and was instrumental in defeating the Briggs Initiative
in 1978. Varying, of course, by the size of the community
and its chapter court, the Courts annually donate thousands
of dollars towards helping their neighbors and especially
courts now established from Hawai’i and 43 courts in
the western US, to New York City and 16 courts in the eastern
US, six Canadian provinces with 11 courts and one court in
Mexico, José’s empire has become one of the gay
communities little secrets. As a strong grassroots organization
interlinked by monarchs that attend the annual coronation
balls of other courts, central direction from José
and his International Court Council, and now even the Internet,
the Court system may well be the strongest if not the only
gay organization with as widespread a local base. Today, the
International Imperial Court System is the second largest
gay and lesbian organization in the world – second only
to the Metropolitan Community Church.
José today remains as busy as ever attending his children courts' coronation balls throughout the year. Here at these balls, he is not only the Widow Norton; he is "Mama." He also recently made his major motion picture debut via a cameo appearance in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar".
Having also been featured in the book, The Mayor of Castro Street, Sarria's biography (as dictated to author Michael German) premiered in the spring of 1998 titled "The Empress Is a Man" by Haworth Press. José now resides in Albuquerque, NM but still returns regularly to his beloved San Francisco.
over half a century, José, the one-time "Nightingale
of Montgomery Street," has nurtured, protected and guided
San Francisco and North America's gay communities through
McCarthyism, the backlash against gay rights, AIDS, and even
the occasional bad makeup job. He is truly a living hero and
role model for all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered
people or anyone who admires courage and optimism against