Empress Jose 1, the Widow Norton

Her Most Imperial Majesty,
Empress Jose I, the Widow Norton

Author's Note: For my work on the International Imperial Court Website, I took some time this weekend to do a small bit of research on a very interesting and amazing gay hero: Jose Sarria. For Harvey Milk and many other gay and lesbian people in San Francisco before Milk, Sarria long served as a protector and inspiration. In the nearly twenty years since Milk's assassination, Sarria has continued to do impressive work for gayfolk everywhere, but his fame and fascinating life are not widely known. Having performed and entertained in drag for half a century, Jose Sarria has never been the assimilated, surbanite-next-door image that Milk was able to capitalize on for support within heterosexual communities. Politically and spiritually, however, he is one of the handful of people who most shaped gay America. Here briefly is the story of his life to this point in time. -Jeff Jones, March 1, 1997

Jose Sarria, the Widow Norton

Jose Julio Sarria, a veteran of World War II, enters gay history in the 1940s when he began to cover at work sometimes for his then boyfriend Jimmy Moore, a waitor at The Black Cat bar on Montgomery Street in San Francisco. In post-World War II San Francisco, an influx of gay and lesbian discharged veterans was swelling the city's gay communities. While the Castro was still a primarily heterosexual, blue-collar neighborhood, the Black Cat had already developed an international reputation as a gay meeting place.

One day while Jose served drinks and the pianist was playing Bizet's CARMEN, Sarria began singing arias to the opera. Soon his arias were a big hit at the Black Cat, and Sarria's reputation for entertainment and performance was born.

With McCarthyism making its heavy hand felt throughout America in the 1950s, social elements that deviated from the lifestyles portrayed on Leave It to Beaver and the I Love Lucy show began facing increasing political and governmental pressures. In San Francisco the McCarthy era ushered in a period of intense police harassment of gay people and gay establishments. California's sodomy law was still the law of the land. Gay men and women were arrested on a number of charges used to keep homosexuals in the closet and hidden.

Against this oppression, Sarria gave the city's gay community hope with a dash of laughter. His impromptu arias would contain lyrics that would warn people of police entrapment schemes if he learned of them. He also coined some of the first known statements to instill gay pride with such slogans as: "There is nothing wrong with being gay- the crime is getting caught" or "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one."

Perhaps his true signature piece, however, was a tune with which he would nightly close the bar via a sing-along with the bar's patrons. Together they would sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens." Sometimes Sarria would lead the bar's patrons and drag entertainers to the nearby jail to serenade the gay people being held there.

The Black Cat's fame and Sarria's morale-boosting campaigns eventually led the police to attempt to close the bar in 1949 on the grounds that it attracted gay people. The owners and clients, however, sued and in a decision by the California Supreme Court, the justices issued a ruling that a bar could not be closed simply due to the clients it attracted.

Police pressures, entrapment schemes, and raids continued into the 1950s with the gay bars eventually establishing a network to spread warnings of police sting operations. In 1961 Sarria did the heroic deed for which he is best known today: he filed as the first openly gay candidate in the world to run for public office. Running a quiet campaign by word-of-mouth, Sarria sought the position of San Francisco city supervisor, the same political office won by Harvey Milk 16 years later. Years later, Sarria claimed that his quiet campaign resulted from the lack of any appropriate suits or clothing for a drag queen to go around kissing babies!

Although Sarria did not win in 1961, he shocked both the city's gay and strayt communities by garnering a hefty 5,600 votes. The realization that a gay voting bloc could wield considerable political clout in San Francisco is cited by a number of political strategists as resulting from Sarria's impressive vote tally. Unfortunately, it was not until the 1970s that changes in San Francisco's voting ordinances moved from city-wide elections to the election of the Board of Supervisors by ward. By the mid-70s when the gay population was concentrating in the Castro district, this change in election law allowed for a number of minority candidates including the openly gay Harvey Milk to win election. At the time of Sarria's campaign sixteen years prior, Sarria would have had to win as one of the top vote getters elected by the entire city.

(Ironically, Sarria was the first person to sign on backing Harvey Milk's campaign for city supervisor. At that time other leading gay men and lesbians feared that Milk's openness would endanger gains with the city's existing, heterosexual progressive politicians.)

Facing on-going police pressures, the owner of The Black Cat, a strayt man who had long kept the bar open against police harassment, closed the bar the day after Halloween in 1963. Within a week, police had closed five other gay bars. In 1963 San Francisco boasted thirty primarily gay and lesbian establishments. By 1964 only eighteen remained.

Sarria and the various gay bar owners, however, did not simply give up hope. In early 1965 the owners united in forming the Tavern Guild and put on San Francisco's first large, public drag ball with Sarria heading it up. Over 500 lesbians and gay men bravely crossed police lines and braved flood lights and the flashing lights of police photographers to attend this ball. During it, Sarria was named the Queen of the Ball.

Soon Sarria considered that why be a queen when he could be an empress? So, he proclaimed himself the Empress of San Francisco. To further enhance this title, Sarria drew upon the legend of the Emperor Norton, the fabulously eccentric 19th century San Franciscan miner and rice baron who gained and lost at least one fortune. During his lifetime, the Emperor Norton dressed finely and proclaimed himself the Emperor of the United States and Canada, Protector of Mexico. Heir in spirit if not law to this extraordinary man, Sarria named himself the Widow Norton and began annual pilgrimages to Norton's grave in nearby Colma where he and accompanying drag queens would pay their respects with flowers to Sarria's departed "spouse."

The Tavern Guild continued to draw the city's gay community together and began to regularly hold events including the annual drag ball. Eventually this ball marked the annual election of a city-wide Empress who succeeded Empress Jose I and subsequent Empresses. Evolving out of the Tavern Guild, Jose developed the bylaws and functions of the Imperial Court of San Francisco, a group that sought through drag shows and other functions to raise money for at first primarily gay charities. Eventually the position of Emperor and the subsequent male and female lines of assorted princesses, dukes, and countesses were established to run and organize the charitable organization: the older, more prestigious female line for drag queens (and eventually women in traditional female garb) and the male line for men in stereotypical male garb (and eventually women doing "male drag.")

By the early 1970s, the Court system established by Sarria had been franchised to first Vancouver, Canada, and then Portland. Over the next thirty years individual Courts answering to the Widow Norton have spread to over sixty areas (some based in cities while others cover whole states or provinces) in the United States and Canada.

Although under Sarria's guidance the Courts have avoided by ruling any partisan politics, they have funneled considerable funds into community charities. This work has ranged considerably. The Imperial Court of Toronto recently raised funds to buy body bags and a burial ground for a more dignified closure to the lives of poor people who died of HIV/AIDS in Tiajuana, Mexico. Previous to the Court's help, these people's bodies were often tossed into trash heaps. Similarly in the mid-1980s when no local charity would invest in prevention and care programs related to HIV/AIDS, the Royal Sovereign Imperial Court of All Kentucky raised thousands of dollars to establish the Louisville-based Community Health Trust. In 1996 alone, the Cincinnati court donated to local charities over $10,000 raised from Court events. Varying of course by the size of the community and its chapter court, the Courts annually donate thousands of dollars towards helping their neighbors and especially gay communities.

With courts now established from Alaska to San Diego in the west and Toronto to Kentucky in the east, Sarria's empire has become one of the gay communities little secrets. As a strong grassroots organization interlinked by monarchs attending the annual coronation balls of other courts, central direction from Sarria and his International Imperial Coucil, and now even the Internet, the Court system may well be the strongest if not the only gay organization with as widespread a local base.

Jose Sarria today remains as busy as ever attending his children courts' coronation balls throughout the year. Here at these balls, he is not only the Widow Norton, he is "Mama," the title he asks all within the Court to address him by. He also recently made his major motion picture debut via a cameo piece in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Having also been featured in the book, The Mayor of Castro Street, Sarria's biography (as dictated to author Michael Gorman) premieres in the Spring of 1998 titled The Empress Is a Man by Haworth Press. Sarria still lives in his beloved San Francisco. Although he remains the head of the Court system, Sarria has designated his heir to be Empress Nicole the Great of San Diego, his protege and a community activist of his own standing nationwide.

For over half a century, Jose Sarria, the one-time "Nightingale of Montgomery Street," has nurtured, protected and guided San Francisco and North America's gay communities through McCarthyism, the backlash against gay rights, AIDS, and even the occassional bad makeup job. He is truly a living hero and role model for all lesbigaytrans people or anyone who admires courage and optimism against daunting odds.