José Sarria


Before Harvey Milk ever hit the San Francisco streets, there was Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton (José Sarria for short). Over a lifetime that stretched from the 1950s gay bar police raids to the renaming of a part of The City in his honor, Sarria was a political and artistic tour de force of the burgeoning queer movement. He got his start singing Carmen at the Black Cat Bar, but quickly expanded his act to belting out “God Save Us Nelly Queens” (a cover of “God Save The Queen”) to comfort the raid prisoners across the street. When police pressure increased he pioneered new counterstrikes, like encouraging detainees to demand a trial instead of pleading guilty, and decking out his fellow drag queens with labels that read “I am a boy” to dodge a law that forbid crossdressing with “the intent to deceive.”

Sarria sealed his place in history when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, making him the first openly gay person in the United States to run for public office. There were fewer than five candidates for the five available seats, so Sarria would have won by default had city officials not caught on at the last moment and entered 34 more candidates. Still, Sarria captured enough voters to awaken the interest of the local politicians, thus paving the way for San Francisco’s future title as a queer political powerhouse.

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