Long a colourful icon for queer rights and believed to be the first openly-gay person to run for public office anywhere in the world, American political activist and cabaret artist José Sarria was laid to rest at a grand and exuberant funeral earlier this month in the city he helped make famous as a beacon for equality.
About 1,000 people turned out to pack San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral on September 6 to honour and celebrate Sarria, who died at the age of 90 at his home at Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico on August 19. He had been diagnosed with adrenal cancer the year before.
Born in San Francisco on December 12, 1922 to an unwed Colombian mother, Sarria served with the US military in World War Two and was in the unit that entered Berlin shortly after the fall of the Nazi regime, before staying on as part of the US Army of Occupation. Standing at under five feet tall, Sarria had managed to enlist following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour despite being considerably under the Army’s height restrictions. It is said he seduced a recruiting officer to get his way and see active duty.
Discharged from the military in 1947, Sarria then tried to forge a career as a teacher but those dreams were soon dashed after he was arrested on charges of soliciting in a public bathroom at the St Francis Hotel and subsequently fined. With teaching no longer an option due to his criminal record, Sarria continued with a number of small jobs, including waiting tables at the Black Cat Cafe. After an impromptu sing-along with the club pianist one evening while carrying drinks to tables, he would achieve some fame and notoriety in the 1950s as a cabaret and drag performer known as ‘The Nightingale of Montgomery Street’.
Fond of the eccentric and the downtrodden, Sarria would also take on the names ‘Empress José I’, the ‘Dowager Empress’ and the ‘Widow Norton’ in a homage to Joshua Norton, a 19th-century San Franciscan who in 1859 declared himself emperor of the United States. Incidentally, as according to his wishes, Sarria is now buried next to Norton’s grave. With a penchant for outrageous costumes, and camp but touching versions of torch songs and operas, Sarria quickly became just as well known for his loud fight for civil rights as much for his singing ability and stagecraft.
From the hurly-burly of the nightclub world, Sarria would begin to help lead a fight against oppressive laws that made homosexuality a crime and allowed a corrupt San Francisco police force to jail gay men for soliciting or ‘cruising’ at locations in the city, as well as extort bribes and payoffs from gay bars and other spots known to be welcoming of gay people and cross-dressers.
Following on from his lead, other cross-dressers began to wear a button that read “I am a boy” in order to escape arrest for impersonating a woman, while he also called upon gay men and others charged with indecency to demand trials in front of juries.
“There is nothing wrong with being gay; the crime is being caught,” was one of Sarria’s famous quotes from the period.
It was in 1961, however, that he truly created history, according to friend Gerard Koskovich, a close friend and curator of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society. Koskovich told the Star Observer from his home in the US this week that by running for a place on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Sarria became the first openly gay man in the US, or any other nation in the world, to make a bid for public office.
“Historians have yet to identify any earlier such candidates,” Koskovich said.
Running on a platform of equality, Sarria’s campaign would become famous for its catch-cry of: “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one”. In the end, Sarria received almost 6,000 votes and finished a very respectable ninth from a total of 34 candidates. It is believed almost 30 of those candidates put forward their nominations on the final day possible after opponents of Sarria realised he was bound to gain one of the five seats available on the board due to the fact there were only five candidates at the time.
“From that day on, nobody ran for anything in San Francisco without knocking on the door of the gay community,” Sarria said afterwards.
Paul Boneberg, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, told the Star Observer that Sarria’s influence continues to loom large across the US.
“José also co-founded pioneering GLBT organisations, including the League for Civil Education (LCE) in 1961, the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) in 1964 and the Imperial Court System in 1965,” Boneberg said.
“These institutions are forerunners of the multitude of GLBT activist and non-profit organisations that exist today. Indeed, the Imperial Court system, now in its 48th year, continues its role as a major fundraising organisation in many cities across the US, Canada and Mexico.”
Stuart Milk, the openly gay nephew of slain former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first out gay elected official in the city, said Sarria was truly an “extraordinary” person.
“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,” Milk said in a statement.
Sarria’s entire archival collection will be housed at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, much of which he had already donated to the museum prior to his death.
Mourners at Jose Sarria’s funeral and internment (Photos © Gerard Koskovich)