Tuesday, October 18, 2016

October 18 - Jose Sarria

Jose Sarria (Empress Jose I, the Widow Norton)

Jose Sarria was a jack of all trades with a fascinating history. He grew up in San Francisco, the son of a Colombian immigrant, and enlisted in the army shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His small stature, though (4'11") prevented him from joining... until he seduced a major in the recruitment office into approving his enlistment. Sarria served in the Signal Corps and was eventually called up to Intelligence because of his fluency in several languages. He made his way through several other far less glamorous assignments before being discharged in 1947 as a Staff Sergeant. Sarria returned to California with plans of becoming a teacher, which never came to be when he was arrested for solicitation. Sarria dropped out of college and started singing and waiting tables at the Black Cat Bar. This led to a regular gig, at which Sarria dressed in drag and encouraged patrons to be open about their sexuality (since it was technically illegal to be gay in public), parodying popular songs such as in "God Save Us Nelly Queens." He routinely fought back against bar raids by police, educating gay men and drag queens on what to say and do to not be arrested, and formed the League for Civil Education, a gay support group for those caught in raids.

In 1961, Sarria, now a well-known San Francisco figure for his drag shows, became the first openly gay candidate for public office when he ran for the Board of Supervisors. He did not win, but that didn't stop Sarria from serving the gay community. A year later, he formed the Tavern Guild, the country's first gay business assocation, which also raised money for legal fees and bail for those arrested at gay bars. He later formed the Society for Individual Rights, a group which supplied "pocket lawyers," booklets with information about what to do if you were arrested at a gay bar or harassed by police. Later in life, Sarria became a restaurateur and continued performing in drag as Empress Jose I, the Widow Norton, even appearing in the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. In 1965, he founded the Imperial Court System, now the second largest LGBT organization in the world, a grassroots network of charities that embraced drag culture; Sarria headed the organization for over 40 years. Jose Sarria died of cancer in 2013 and was buried in drag and with full military honors.

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