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How One Activist Used Opera and Drag to Change American Politics Forever

Before Harvey Milk, there was José Sarria.

José Sarria is escorted onstage at the 40th Anniversary Gala of the International Court System that he founded, 2005.
José Sarria is escorted onstage at the 40th Anniversary Gala of the International Court System that he founded, 2005. Monica Almeida/The New York Times/Redux

Empress José Sarria knelt by his husband’s grave clad in an old-fashioned black petticoat, dress, and widow’s veil. Dark gloves ran the length of his arms; elaborate jewelry hugged his neck and wrists. Around him, fellow mourners who had come to know Sarria through his performances and his political activism wore a peculiar mix of black and colorful drag clothes, and in the back, a small marching band dressed in bright red.

The scene was always the same: every year from 1976 until his death in 2013, Sarria led a procession of hundreds of gay and trans San Franciscans to the grave of Joshua Norton, an 1850s merchant who, after going bankrupt and disappearing from public view, returned in 1859 in dramatic fashion—he strut into the offices of a local newspaper wearing a plumed hat and a military coat and declared himself emperor of the entire United States. Around the grave of this eccentric San Franciscan, Sarria and his devotees would mourn, laugh, and discuss the state of their community. A gay and lesbian choral group sang; people sat and watched in chairs.

Empress José Sarria and Emperor Joshua Norton, of course, never actually wed—the timeline makes that impossible. Norton died in 1880. Sarria began making his pilgrimages almost a century later. The fake marriage was a kind of inside joke, part of Sarria’s flavor for the outlandish. A trailblazer himself, Sarria perhaps saw a kindred spirit in Norton’s brand of fearless outcast.

Joshua A. Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
Joshua A. Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Public Domain

Since the AIDS epidemic, Sarria’s annual pilgrimages to his husband’s cemetery took on a new meaning: more than just an ironic celebration of Emperor Joshua Norton, they became a way for gay and trans San Franciscans to mourn their dead and to agitate for socio-political change.

The journalist Michael R. Gorman recounted a pilgrimage he attended in the early 1990s in his book The Empress Is a Man. At the time, the AIDS epidemic was reaching new heights, and much of the ceremony was spent grieving the fallen. At one point, a drag queen stepped forward clutching the ashes of one of her friends. She dumped it by Norton’s grave, then began dancing a scene from The Nutcracker, her dress sweeping the remains into the air. The ashes, which were mixed with glitter, sparkled in the sunlight. Everyone was crying. 

The pilgrimage to Norton’s grave became a necessary catharsis for a community long marginalized, led by a man—José Sarria—who, decades earlier, had transformed the very foundation on which it rested.

San Francisco in 1959.
San Francisco in 1959. Roger W/CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1961, a strange bulletin began appearing across gay bars in San Francisco. Addressing the city’s disparate queer population, it read, “We want all 70,000 of you to register and to vote.”

The bulletin was part of a bold campaign by the newly formed League for Civil Education to consolidate the political power of San Francisco’s LGBT minority. At the time, gay and trans San Franciscans were subject to constant abuse. The legacy of the McCarthy era had intensified public animosity toward the queer community, whose members were labeled anti-American “subversives” linked to communism and espionage. Public outcry soon demanded that queer people be weeded out—a mandate the San Francisco police embraced.

Spurred on by editorials like the one in the San Francisco Examiner urging that someone “drive [gays] out of the city,” police in the 1950s launched campaigns of harassment against suspected homosexuals. They sent attractive undercover officers into gay bars, arresting anyone who flirted with them. They charged customers for being “inmates of a disorderly house,” a bogus crime they employed when they wanted to make an arrest, then printed the names of those gay arrestees in the local newspaper and called their employers, in effect ruining their lives.

Police also frequented gay cruising spots, confiscated gay and lesbian pulp novels, and—at one point—raided a local theater during a showing of a short movie about a young homosexual, arresting the manager and taking away the film and projector. By 1961, 40 to 60 homosexuals per week were charged with some crime relating to their sexuality, and over a dozen gay bars had been shut down.

The city’s queer population, meanwhile, could do little to defend itself. Because so many residents remained closeted, few spoke out against the constant police harassment. The queer community also lacked a unified mouthpiece—the only gay organizations that existed, like the Mattachine Society, were mostly decentralized and non-confrontational, which meant the community had few ways of voicing its anger.

The League for Civil Education aimed to change that. By registering gay and trans people to vote, they reasoned, they could create a powerful queer voting bloc, one that local politicians would have no choice but to listen to. They were trying to do something that had never been done before—to galvanize gays into politics, in effect scaring city higher-ups into submission. Perhaps, the logic went, those higher-ups would think twice about supporting homophobic harassment campaigns if they knew there was a coalition of voters waiting to punish them for it at the polls. 

José Julio Sarria, a co-founder of the League for Civil Education, would soon claim that there were 10,000 voting gays in the city, and politicians had better take their needs seriously if they wanted to keep their jobs.

But he was laughed off. “You are a fool… You will never unify them,” Sarria was told in a meeting with local officials about his plan to organize gay voters.

He replied: “Watch me.”

A waiter and performer at a local gay bar, Sarria had become a fixture in San Francisco gay circles, famous not only for the elaborate operas he performed in drag but also for his outspoken activism. Sick of the inaction by gay organizations, he burst onto the scene peddling phrases like “There’s nothing wrong with being gay—the crime is getting caught” and “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.” Because he’d never been ashamed of his sexuality, he had no qualms about speaking out—his performances railed against both institutionalized homophobia and the queer San Franciscans whom he felt settled for second-class citizenship.

Sarria galvanized queer people to stand up for themselves, for instance telling his audience to fight against the bogus charges the police slapped on them. Previously, the custom had been for arrested gay and trans people to simply plead guilty and pay a fine, for fear that dragging out a court case would out them to their families; but Sarria’s invocations created a backlog of cases, and local judges forced the police to scale down their arrests. 

Sarria became especially attuned to the city’s harassment campaigns against the gay community because the bar he worked at and dearly loved, the Black Cat Café, had become one of its major targets.

Since its inception in 1908, the Black Cat Café branded itself “the most popular place in Bohemia,” home to a clientele of vaudeville stars, writers, anarchists, and gays and to a waiting staff clad in ridiculous carnival clothes.

At the Black Cat in 1958.
At the Black Cat in 1958. José Sarria papers (#1996-01), Courtesy the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

The bar was quickly mythologized in literary circles: it served as a backdrop for Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, and its customers included John Steinbeck and Allen Ginsberg. Upon his visit, Ginsberg proclaimed it “the greatest gay bar in America.” “Everybody went there, heterosexual and homosexual… All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen. All the poets went there.” The Black Cat had cemented its reputation as a gay bar by the mid-1950s, in part because of the immense popularity of José Sarria himself.

Perhaps because of its fame, the Black Cat was subject to constant police scrutiny. First raided in 1949, the bar was added to the Armed Forces’ list of banned businesses. Around this time, the Black Cat’s liquor license was suspended for serving “known homosexuals”; when the California Supreme Court overturned the suspension, the police tried against in 1956, this time revoking the Black Cat’s license on the grounds that it catered to “sexual perverts.” The Black Cat’s lawyer managed to get a stay on the prosecution, but everyone knew it would only last so long.

With the police cracking down, paranoia soon became an essential staple of running a gay bar: to stay open, bars like the Black Cat couldn’t allow same-sex touching, kissing, or hand-holding (permitting such acts would make bars “a resort for sexual perverts” and thus result in a loss of their liquor licenses). Those few that permitted dancing hired bouncers; if someone suspicious came by, the bouncers would flicker the lights and everyone in the bar would switch partners so they appeared to be part of a heterosexual couple.

By 1961, with his campaign to register gay voters underway, Sarria became drained of this routine. He was done sitting idly by and watching the police ruin the lives of innocent people whose only crime was being gay. He also couldn’t help but notice that in the upcoming election, there were five seats open on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

So, shortly after his disastrous meeting with local officials about his proposed gay voting bloc, Sarria took a step no other openly queer person had ever dared to in the history of the United States—he decided to run for public office.

“Watch me,” indeed. 

From Sarria's 1961 campaign materials.
From Sarria’s 1961 campaign materials. Public Domain

There were a few snags.

First: no one wanted him. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would let him file to run under their party umbrella; they refused to endorse a homosexual. 

Second: almost everyone Sarria talked to was unwilling to sign his petition to get on the ballot; they feared the ostracism that would result from publicly supporting a gay candidate.

To run, all he needed was 35 signatures and a party endorsement—he could get neither.

Third: he didn’t even have a suit to wear. All of his clothes were either drag or casual; he had to convince a friend to lend him something more formal.   

But Sarria remained determined—“it is my right [to run], and I am going to take advantage of it,” he said, hoping other gay Americans would follow his lead and make their voices heard in local politics.

He said later: “I ran … because I saw a need. The only way that the gay community at that time could become forceful was to become political. I don’t care what people say, even one vote will make a difference. If enough people scream, it will make a difference.”

Soon, he began having small successes. He “blackmail[ed]” (his words) 35 friends into signing his candidacy petition, insisting he would spill their secrets if they refused. In order to get on the Democratic ticket, he threatened to sue the party—they eventually relented.

But party officials so badly did not want Sarria to win that, in the final hours before the filing deadline, they recruited 24 more people to run against him.

The day of the deadline, when Sarria submitted his petition, there were five open seats on the Board of Supervisors and only nine candidates; by the end of the day, there were 33 candidates, among them a musician and a garbage collector.

The election netted a record number of candidates, likely because of Sarria’s candidacy. Though city officials scoffed at the idea of an organized gay voting bloc in San Francisco, they were privately terrified by the prospect—and a victory for Sarria would thus throw their careers into jeopardy.

According to Sarria, such fears were ultimately productive—“that made politicians and other people realize that there were gay people out there.” From then on, they had to think twice before endorsing anti-gay legislation.

Operating on a meager $500 budget, Sarria bet that his local fame would be enough to win him a seat. No one who saw Sarria could forget him. He was known around San Francisco for his flamboyance: when he needed to make a deposit at the bank, for instance, he would ride in the sidecar of a motorcycle clad in red high heels and bright lipstick for all to see. Later, after winning a drag contest, he would declare himself Empress of San Francisco. 

As a proud Latino and native Spanish speaker, Sarria was also able to engage with long-neglected Hispanic voters, appearing on many Spanish-language radio programs throughout the city in order to promote his candidacy. If he won, he would become the first Latino ever elected in San Francisco.

But Sarria’s main campaign arm was the League for Civil Education, which in its first year of existence devoted most of its energy to Sarria. Its publication, the LCE News, dedicated countless pages to coverage of Sarria’s campaign, keeping the local gay community apprised of everything that was unfolding. Sarria and the League’s president, Guy Strait, also passed out flyers, stopped by gay bars to register voters, and—during Sarria’s widely attended performances at the Black Cat—urged audience members to spread the word about the election.

Both Sarria and Strait viewed the campaign as an outgrowth of their push to register gay voters and create a unified voting bloc. After all, what better way to inspire gays to vote than if one of their own was on the ballot?

By spreading the word about Sarria’s candidacy, they were reminding gay, bisexual, and transgender San Franciscans that they were normal, that they should not have to hide, that people like them should be represented in all political bodies across the nation. It was a bold message, to be sure—one that would echo for decades to come. 

Sarria dressed as the Widow Norton.
Sarria dressed as the Widow Norton. José Sarria papers (#1996-01), Courtesy the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Born in 1923 to a Colombian mother who had fled her home during a civil war, Sarria was dressing up in girl’s clothing since he was two years old. Both his biological mother and his godmother, who took turns caring for him, found it adorable; often they let him wear girl’s clothes in public. Soon after, he started taking vocal, tap, and ballet lessons. Sarria was always free to be himself, and perhaps this is why for him being gay was never a source of shame.

He grew up speaking both Spanish and English, and in high school he also enrolled in French and German. By the time he graduated, he was nearly fluent in four languages. He dropped out of college once the U.S. entered World War II, quickly finding a position as a translator in the Military Intelligence department. (At 90 pounds and just under five feet tall, Sarria didn’t meet the physical requirements to enter the army—to get in, he flirted with the recruiter, who pulled strings for him.)

Once the military discovered his sexuality, they transferred him to the Cooking and Baking School. Though normally such a discovery would result in an immediate dishonorable discharge, the U.S. during the war was so pressed for bodies that they overlooked it. By the time Sarria left the army in 1945, he’d been promoted to staff sergeant.

He soon returned to college under the GI Bill. His dream was to become a teacher. To make money on the side, he started working part-time as a waiter at the Black Cat, then a bohemian center, donning his signature high heels and singing to customers as he passed out drinks.

One Sunday afternoon, he started belting out a song from the opera Carmen—by the time he finished, the room erupted into applause, and customers began asking why he didn’t perform more often. A star was born.

But in the early 1950s, cops arrested him for “moral charges” at the St. Francis Bar, a popular gay cruising spot. His dream of becoming a teacher thus shattered, Sarria plunged himself further into the world of the Black Cat. 

I said to myself, ‘You sons of bitches! Fine! You named me a homosexual… You label me a queen? Then I’ll be the best goddamn queen that ever was!’”

By the end of the decade, he’d dropped out of school, and he was soon putting on four performances a night. His most widely attended were his one-man opera parodies, which became especially popular among the local gay community. Underlying the brash humor and ridiculous costumes was a message of justice and self-love that the gay community, still reeling from constant police harassment, so desperately needed.

Before each opera, the other waiters pushed together dining tables in the Black Cat to form a stage. Then, once the bar fell silent, in stepped José Sarria, clad in red pumps, a tiara, tight black pants, and cherry lipstick. Sometimes he’d wear a scarf or a shawl; sometimes he’d have on an orchid. But he was always lively and unpredictable, interrupting his songs to point to an attractive audience member and say, “Now pay attention, you handsome man. This is very sophisticated stuff. You should learn this. You won’t always be beautiful, you know. You’ll need something to talk about when the plumbing gets rusted.”

Sarria’s repertoire of operas extended beyond 45, and his dresses would change with each one. Because operas were only available to the wealthy, few of Sarria’s viewers were familiar with the original versions, and he therefore tried to express their meanings through clothing. He wore Spanish outfits for Carmen, bouffant dresses for La bohème, and clown clothes for Pagliacci. Rarely did he follow a script. Even his costumes were sometimes ad-libbed—once, he came on stage dressed in window curtains from his house.

Sarria’s most famous production was his modern-day rendition of the French opera Carmen. Set in San Francisco, it featured Sarria as Carmen visiting a popular gay cruising spot; when the police arrived, Carmen ducked behind bushes to avoid the cops. By the time she finally escaped, all of the Black Cat was hollering.

Sarria’s operas became so popular among gay and trans San Franciscans that they developed into a kind of gay news service. Sarria often interrupted his operas to report some new police raid. “A blue fungus has hit the parks,” Sarria once said in reference to a crackdown on park sex. “It does not appear until about 2 a.m. It twinkles like a star. Until this fungus dies, it’s best to stay out of our parks at 2 a.m.”

As his celebrity swelled, Sarria began calling on his queer audience to take more confrontational approaches to police harassment. He railed against the custom of submitting to bogus charges leveled by the police for fear that fighting back would equal being discovered. He pushed queer people, who were at especially high risk for diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea, to visit the Health Department even though they feared the judgment of their doctors. By 1961, after the formation of the League for Civil Education, he also started calling on his audience to register to vote.

In effect, Sarria reminded queer San Franciscans that they had rights—and if they wanted social equality, they needed to start using them.

Sarria also found ways to undermine the police. Whenever he spotted an undercover officer in the Black Cat, for instance, he called them out from the stage so that everyone in the bar would know to avoid them. And when law enforcement in San Francisco began enforcing an obscure law that banned the “impersonation” of the opposite sex “with the intent to deceive,” a rule targeting trans people and drag queens, Sarria had his drag queen friends parade around in women’s clothing—but with notes pinned to the collars of their dresses that read, “I am a boy.”

But Sarria’s most lasting legacy was the sense of hope he instilled in his predominantly queer audience. He helped to stitch a disparate social identity into a thriving community, one that was just beginning to stand up and fight for itself. At the end of each of his performances, Sarria asked every customer in the Black Cat to join hands, make a circle, and belt the lyrics to a song he’d written, “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen.”  

God save us nelly queens

God save us nelly queens

God save us queens

From every mountainside

Long may we live and die

God us nelly queens

God save us queens!

George Mendenhall, author of The Word Is Out, later wrote: “It sounds silly, but if you lived at that time and had the oppression coming down from the police department and from society, there was nowhere to turn … and to be able to put your arms around other gay men and to be able to stand up and sing, ‘God Save Us Nelly Queens” … We were really not saying, ‘God Save Us Nelly Queens.’ We were saying, ‘We have our rights, too.’”

For a community so in need of hope, “God Save Us Nelly Queens” became a kind of anthem, and Sarria, a hero.

By the time he filed to run in 1961, it was this sentiment that propelled him forward. Despite living under a hostile government, gay and trans San Franciscans—like their counterparts across the United States—were beginning to come together and demand their rights. They were forming political organizations. They were registering to vote.

They were done staying quiet. They were done hiding.

In 2006, a section of 16th Street was designated José Sarria Court to commemorate his activism.
In 2006, a section of 16th Street was designated José Sarria Court to commemorate his activism. Ed and Eddie/CC BY-SA 2.0

By the end of the day on November 7, 1961, the votes were in: José Julio Sarria, the first openly gay candidate for public office in U.S. history, had not won any of the five seats on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

But he’d come in ninth in a field of 33 candidates, winning, according to most sources, a total of about 5,600 votes. Though shy of Sarria’s claim that there were 10,000 queer San Francisco voters, the number shocked the political establishment. So many thousands of votes was certainly enough to sway an election in the city—and, as an organized voting bloc, it could threaten the positions of countless politicians. Soon they were drawing the obvious conclusion: if they wanted to keep their jobs, especially if they were liberal, they needed to win the gay community.

By the end of the decade, local politicians were actively courting gay voters. Organizations like the Society for Individual Rights—a spinoff of the League for Civil Education—began hosting “Candidates’ Nights,” which brought together gay voters and local office seekers. Over the years, as the gay community became more organized, almost all liberal politicians were stopping by these events. In fact, in 1970, now-senator Diane Feinstein attended a Candidates’ Night during her race for supervisor of San Francisco. Other candidates started taking out ads in gay publications, even floating the possibility of introducing anti-discrimination measures.   

In a sense, then, Sarria ultimately won. His run for office no doubt made a mutual relationship between politicians and queer voters possible, for he not only galvanized gay people into politics, but he also shocked the San Francisco political establishment into taking LGBT issues seriously.

His run for office also paved the way for future queer office seekers, most famously Harvey Milk, who would enter the political scene over a decade later.

Sarria with the Imperial Court members, 1965.
Sarria with the Imperial Court members, 1965. José Sarria papers (#1996-01), Courtesy the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

The end of Sarria’s campaign for supervisor, however, was not the end of his life of history-making political activism. In 1965, he founded the Imperial Court System, a charity entirely composed of unpaid volunteers that raises funds—largely through elaborate drag shows—for fighting AIDS, domestic abuse, homelessness, and more. With chapters across North America, it remains one of the largest LGBT organizations in the world.

When registering his organization, Sarria realized he needed to include a list of officers—but because labels like “president” sounded too boring to him, he decided to make up his own names. Volunteers for the Imperial Court therefore bear titles like duke, duchess, czar, czarina, jesters, and so on. The head of the organization is called the Empress, and is elected annually—Her Royal Majesty José Julio Sarria was the first.

Later, in 2006, the city of San Francisco honored Sarria for all of his achievements, renaming a section of 16th Street “José Sarria Court.”

Sarria passed away in 2013. Upon his death, newspapers as high-profile as the New York Times published obituaries. Reflecting on Sarria’s life, Harvey Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, told reporters, “He paved the way for my uncle, Harvey Milk, to run for public office.”

But despite the flurry of press coverage, Sarria today remains unknown in most circles. Maybe this isn’t surprising: in the U.S., LGBT history is not taught on a large scale, and the names of heroes like José Sarria languish. Further, those few LGBT people that we do remember are predominantly white, despite the fact that so much early queer activism was driven by people of color (take Stonewall civil rights pioneers Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, for instance). That Sarria was Latino should therefore not be forgotten.

Sarria was buried beside his late husband Emperor Norton, in a plot of land he’d purchased in 1976. Still today the annual pilgrimages to Norton’s grave continue—but now, when his admirers come to celebrate the U.S.’s one true emperor, they are also celebrating Sarria, its first openly gay politician and a man who changed the LGBT community forever.