Entertainment :: Culture

LGBT History Month Profiles: José Sarria

by Mike Halterman
Sunday Nov 3, 2013
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José Sarria
José Sarria  

José Sarria was born in San Francisco to Julio Sarria, a third-generation Spanish-American, and Maria Dolores Maldonado, from a well-to-do family in Colombia. His parents never married and his father was not an active presence in his life at all, frequently being sent to jail for child support.

Sarria was educated at the Emerson School and Commerce High School. During his time in high school, he became fluent in French and German; this combined with Spanish and English brought his number of knowledgeable languages to four. Sarria started his first relationship with a man while he was his English tutor; the man was an Austrian baron who fled to the United States to escape the Nazis.

He first became known in the San Francisco LGBT scene in the early 1950s, when he started work at the Black Cat Bar as a cocktail waiter. He started in drag at the urging of a friend, winning a $50 contract consisting of two weeks of shows, and his performing career took off. At the Black Cat, he started singing arias and complete operas while serving drinks; this led to many scheduled performances.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Sarria fought police harassment not only against himself but the bar in which he worked. He ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, becoming the first openly gay candidate for public office in the country. While he didn’t win, San Francisco was first confronted with "the gay voting bloc," a force nobody ignored in any city election afterwards. In 1962, Sarria helped create the country’s first gay business association, The Tavern Guild. In 1965, after being crowned "José I, The Widow Norton", Sarria formed the Imperial Court System, which is now the second largest gay charity organization in the world. The Widow Norton would reign as Empress in the System until 2007.

He became a close friend to Harvey Milk, who, in 1977, would win the seat on the Board of Supervisors that Sarria tried to win back in 1961. Sarria lived in San Francisco until 1996. In the final years of his life, he earned San Francisco Pride’s Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award and a segment of 16th Street in The Castro was renamed "José Sarria Court." Sarria died of adrenal cancer in August 2013 in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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