Before Harvey Milk, an LGBT activist captivated San Francisco.
He sang opera, organized for LGBT rights, and even ran for supervisor but almost nobody has heard of him.
A little over a year ago, San Francisco lost an LGBT pioneer named José Julio Sarria. Sarria isn’t as famous as Harvey Milk, but he should be. And if you want to understand the life of José Sarria, you have to first learn about the life of another San Francisco personality from a century earlier: Joshua Norton.
A little over a year ago, San Francisco lost an LGBT pioneer named José Julio Sarria. Sarria isn’t as famous as Harvey Milk, but he should be. And if you want to understand the life of José Sarria, you have to first learn about the life of another San Francisco personality from a century earlier: Joshua Norton. Norton was a Gold Rush entrepreneur who made – and then lost – a fortune. Being penniless drove him mad: One day in 1859, he delivered a note to a local newspaper that declared he believed himself to be the Emperor of the United States. The newspaper, having a little fun, published his declaration. Overnight, Norton was transformed into Emperor Norton, a sort of living comic strip.
Policemen saluted him when he passed. Theaters saved a balcony seat for the Emperor. A young Mark Twain wrote about the Emperor in his newspaper column. Tourists sought out the Emperor and his autograph.
His fame grew with each subsequent “proclamation.” Policemen saluted him when he passed. Theaters saved a balcony seat for the Emperor. A young Mark Twain wrote about the Emperor in his newspaper column. Tourists sought out the Emperor and his autograph. In 1876, at the height of his power, Emperor Norton was visited by the real-life Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil. The two men conferenced at the Palace Hotel for over an hour, though history does not record what matters they discussed.
On a cold January evening in 1880, the Emperor’s reign abruptly ended. Walking up Nob Hill, Norton collapsed and died at the corner of Grant Avenue and California Street. The entire city mourned. Local businessmen bought him a fine rosewood casket, and the city itself paid for his interment. Thirty thousand people turned out for his funeral procession, a two-mile-long snake that wound through the streets of the city.
More than forty years later, in 1922, José Julio Sarria was born to a single mother from Colombia. Sarria was a special child from the start: he excelled in school and spoke four languages. He sang and danced. He also had a thing for wearing women’s clothes.
“There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” he was famous for saying, “The crime is getting caught.”
A Drag Career via the Army
In 1941, Sarria resolved to join the army. Noting his abilities, the Army placed him in the Military Intelligence department. But after security investigators dug into his history, they not-so-subtly transferred him to the Army Cooking and Baking School instead.
But no matter, he just excelled at that too. Before leaving the Army in 1945 as a Staff Sergeant, he oversaw a hundred army personnel and two hundred civilians. Not too shabby for a gay, Latino twenty-something in the 1940s.
Despite that, when he returned to San Francisco as a civilian, he had to start from scratch. To make a few dollars, he began singing in drag four nights a week at an LGBT bar called the Black Cat Cafe. His performances – especially of opera standards – were so impressive that legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen dubbed him “The Nightingale of Montgomery Street.”
Sarria’s stage at the Black Cat was his soapbox. In an age when gay men typically lived double lives, Sarria wore his identity on his sleeve.“There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” he was famous for saying. “The crime is getting caught.” But his activism went far beyond clever quips. Sarria took his soapboxing to the streets. He founded the Tavern Guild for owners of LGBT bars, the first gay business association in the country. Then he started the Society for Individual Rights, which organized voter registration drives and ran fundraisers for municipal candidates.
And in 1961, he surprised everyone by running for city supervisor, becoming the first openly-gay man to run for political office in the United States – anywhere, ever. Sarria received 5,800 votes – not enough to win, but enough to prove that the LGBT community was a serious voting constituency. The “gay vote” was never again ignored in city politics.
Everyone knows about Harvey Milk, but there would not have been a Harvey Milk if Sarria hadn’t busted down the doors sixteen years before. In 1964, the Tavern Guild wanted to honor Sarria for his work, so they invited him to their annual Beaux Arts Halloween Costume Ball. Naturally, Sarria arrived in full, glittering drag, and was crowned “Queen of the Ball.” “But no,” Sarria told the crowd. “You can’t crown me Queen, I’m already the Queen. No, I am an Empress. I am Empress José the First, the widow of Joshua Norton.” More than eighty years after Emperor Norton died, a latino LGBT pioneer in full drag resurrected him.
Heartfelt words were said, a band played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the Empress of the twentieth century was laid to rest beside the Emperor of the nineteenth.
The Empress’s Benevolent Reign
At the next year’s Beaux Arts Ball, another Empress was crowned. A dynasty had begun, and Sarria saw another opportunity for good: he turned this fake royalty into a real organization. It became known as the Imperial Court System, an all-volunteer force of drag performers who raise money for causes like homelessness, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS. With satellites in 70 other cities – from Portland to Winnipeg to Tijuana – they have raised tens of millions of dollars. And Empress José the First, the widow of Emperor Norton, was the queen mother of all of it. He led pilgrimages to Norton’s grave, and he even bought the cemetery plot adjacent to Norton’s for himself. On Sept. 6, 2013, Sarria visited Norton’s grave for the last time. He had died two weeks prior, on August 19. He had left exquisitely detailed instructions for his funeral. His casket was carried up the steps of Grace Cathedral. A thousand people attended, including city mayors, supervisors, and Imperial Court monarchs in full regalia. Five hundred men and women accompanied the casket to the cemetery. An American flag was draped over his coffin, then folded and replaced with a rainbow flag which had flown during Pride. On top of that was placed one of Sarria’s own tiaras. Heartfelt words were said, a band played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the Empress of the twentieth century was laid to rest beside the Emperor of the nineteenth.
Emperor Norton would have enjoyed it.
by Joey Brunelle