José Julio Sarria
1922 – 2013
José Julio Sarria was born on December 12, 1922 in San Francisco, California. Mr. Sarria was a Latino veteran of World War II and served in the European theater, and was honorably discharged in 1947.
During the time of McCarthyism in the 1950s, police frequently harassed gay establishments like the “Black Cat” where Jose worked as an entertainer. José was a vocal critic of the discriminatory treatment towards the gay community, and would cultivate a sense of gay pride and identity in his routines. At the end of his Sunday performance, he would enjoin the audience to stand up and together sing “God Save Us Nellie Queens” as a way of instilling solidarity for gay people.
After the Black Cat closed its door, José continued his activism and started the League of Civil Education and later reformed it into the Society for Individual Rights, both forerunners in gay activism. In 1961, José was tired of being treated as a “2nd class citizen” and decided to run for the office of Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay candidate for public office, thereby opening the door for other gay politicians that came after him – including Harvey Milk. He placed 5th with over 5,000 votes from among a field of 29 candidates, thus creating the first gay voting bloc.
In 1964 the Tavern Guild of San Francisco crowned José as the Queen of the Beau Arts Ball. He proclaimed himself “Empress of San Francisco, widow of Emperor Joshua Norton and Protector of Mexico,” paving the way for formation of the Imperial Court System in San Francisco. Soon after, other Courts began to form in the West Coast, and then it traveled across the border to Canada. Today, there are 68 courts across the United States, Canada and Mexico, the second largest LGBT organization in the world. For the next 40 some years, Empress José traveled far and wide inspiring young gay people about the importance of working together and striving for full equality. He would constantly remind us that “united we stand, divided they will get us one by one.”
The International Court Council was formed in 1996 as an international governing body with a set of policies, standard protocol, and promotes greater communication and cooperation among member Courts. In February 2007 Empress José retired as the head of the International Court System, and named San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez to succeed him as the Chairman and Executive Director and “Queen Mother of the Americas.” On October 23, 2015 the International Imperial Court System will celebrate its 50th Anniversary with a Gala State Dinner in Portland, Oregon.
Jose Sarria’s community service and activism is recognized not only in San Francisco or the State of California. He is an inspiration to millions of people all over the world. He served multiple times as Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride andin many cities throughout the country for various Pride celebrations and gay rodeo events. In 1997, Jose was invited to participate in the Global Cultural Diversity Conference in Berlin. He was bestowed with the 1999 Human Rights Award by the City of Hayward, and recognized by the SF GLBT Historical Society, the Gay & Lesbian Archives and One Institute in Los Angeles, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, The San Francisco Senior Center, and by the Mayor and City of San Diego. San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez and then San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty led a successful campaign to rename a section of 16th Street in the Castro to “José Sarria Court” on May 26, 2006. A plaque outlining Sarria’s accomplishments, sponsored by the International Court Council, is embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, which is located at 1 José Sarria Court. In June 2009, the California State Assembly honored Sarria for his lifetime of community service and activism.
Jose Sarria is the subject of the highly acclaimed book; The Empress is a Man, by Michael Gorman which won a Lambda Literary Award in 1999. He is also the subject of a new play by Joe Castell, which held a reading at the Pasadena Playhouse a few years ago. Google “Jose Sarria” online would yield hundreds of entries for many hours of interesting read. There is also a page on the Imperial Court website dedicated to Jose Sarria at http://www.impcourt.org/images/people/Jose/JoseCommunique.pdf.
Empress José continued his role as the “Grand Mere” of the International Imperial Court System in his twilight years, traveling to various kingdoms, bestowing his wisdom and sharing his life experience with the younger generation of courtiers. On August 19, 2013 José Julio Sarria passed away at the age of 90.
“The Rosa Parks of the Gay Rights Movement”
Toni Atkins, Speaker of the California State Assembly “He was the first out gay candidate for public office, paving the way for so many of us over the years. He helped end raids of establishments that catered to LGBT people and helped move our community toward equal treatment under the law.With a larger than life personality and heart to match- he was a national LGBT icon. To San Diego, Jose was the recipient of the Harvey Milk Humanitarian Award at San Diego’s first Harvey Milk Breakfast. I was honored to know him and proud to call him my friend”.
Stuart Milk,Founder and Presidentof the Harvey Milk Foundation say that the passing of Mr. Sarria marks a significant moment in gay history. “Jose Sarria, founder of the International Court System showed us how to turn a night into a grand occasion and a grand occasion into a means of providing support. That support led so many who did not “fit in” to actually proudly stand out, together, creating a local sense of community and an international network that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local and major charities. 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. José’s extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end, but the extraordinary good that he did live on. For the International Court System he was a guardian and an inspiration. For anyone who felt like they were different he was a defender of our dreams. He taught us how to turn an idea into action, how to wear a tiara and how to laugh and ultimately he taught us how to lift up and nourish a marginalized community.”
John A. Pérez,Former Speaker of the California Assembly noted that Jose had impact beyond California, his influence was global. “Jose Sarria was a monumental figure in the LGBT Community whose contributions to our movement cannot be overstated. His trailblazing run for public office as an openly gay man laid the groundwork for LGBT Californians to run for public office proudly and openly. But Jose’s refusal to be silenced or shamed back into the closet–in an era where LGBT People were routinely discriminated against–was the greatest contribution to our movement. Jose’s courageous personal example of living life openly, with pride and dignity, gave so many others the courage and confidence they needed to do the same.”
Bevan Dufty, Former San Francisco Supervisor who led the effort to name a portion of a street in San Francisco’s gay Castro district after Sarria, the first gay man to be honored in such a way, said “having a “heroic individual” like Sarria inducted into the Hall of Fame would be a fitting honor.”
Nicole Murray Ramirez, San Diego City Commissioner, Chairman & Executive Director of the International Court Council and Queen Mother of the Americas “Jose Julio Sarria was indeed the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement as an early activist in the 1950s and 1960s. Jose is considered a trailblazer and pioneer not only in the LGBT community, but also among the Latino, senior and other communities as well. Jose devoted his life to the pursuit of equality and social justice for all people”.