José Sarria in January 2011
December 22, 1922|
San Francisco, California
|Died||August 19, 2013
Albuquerque, New Mexico
|Other names||The Nightingale of Montgomery Street
Empress José I, The Widow Norton
|Occupation||Waiter, singer, drag queen, LGBT rights activist, Founder of the Imperial Court System|
|Known for||The first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States|
José Sarria (December 22, 1922 – August 19, 2013) was an American political activist. For many years, he performed in drag at the Black Cat Bar in San Francisco, California. He ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, making him the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. A portion of a San Francisco street was named in his honor.
Early life[change | change source]
Sarria was born in San Francisco to Julio Sarria and Maria Dolores Maldonado on December 22, 1922. His parents did not marry. His father showed no interest in raising him. José's mother tried to raise him on her own. This became too difficult. She placed him with another couple. Both they and his mother indulged his early interest in wearing girls' clothing. Sarria had a talent for languages. This led to his first serious romance with another man. Sarria tutored Paul Kolish. Kolish was an Austrian baron who had fled from the Nazis. Sarria and Kolish fell in love. Their relationship lasted until Kolish and his son were killed in a car accident in 1947.
Drag life[change | change source]
Sarria served in the United States Army during World War II. He studied to become a teacher after his discharge. He often went to the Black Cat Bar. He met waiter Jimmy Moore. Sarria describes Moore as "the love of [his] life". Sarria was hired as a cocktail waiter. He was convicted on a morals charge. He knew he could not become a certified teacher following his conviction. He began performing as a drag queen. He appeared regularly at the Black Cat. Sarria co-founded several organizations dedicated to gay interests. Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. He ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. In 1964 Sarria declared himself "Empress José I, The Widow Norton". He founded the Imperial Court System. The System grew to become an international association of charitable organizations.
Later life[change | change source]
The Black Cat closed in 1964. Sarria went to work with restaurant operator Pierre Parker. The two operated French restaurants at World's Fairs. Sarria was working at the 1964 New York World's Fair when he learned that Jimmy Moore had died. Sarria worked at several more Fairs before retiring in 1974. Sarria lived with Parker in Phoenix, Arizona for several years, then returned to San Francisco. He continued to reign over the Courts for 43 years. He abdicated in 2007. The city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in Sarria's honor for his lifetime of activism.
Death[change | change source]
References[change | change source]
- Aldrich, Robert and Garry Witherspoon (2001), Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History, 2, Routledge, p. 370
- "Joe. My. God. Jose Julio Sarria, America's First Openly Gay Candidate For Office, Dies At Age 91". Joe. My. God. August 19, 2013. Retrieved August 19, 2013.
- Pettis, Ruth M (2004). "Sarria, Jose (1923?)". glbtq. Retrieved June 25, 2008.
His birth certificate states December 12, 1923, but Sarria suspects that his mother added a year to deflect attention from her unmarried state.
- Gorman p. 134
- "José Julio Sarria founder of imperial court system dies at 90". LGBT Weekly. August 19, 2013. Retrieved August 19, 2013.
- Gorman, Michael R. (1998). The Empress is a Man: Stories From the Life of José Sarria. New York, Harrington Park Press: an imprint of Haworth Press. ISBN 0789002590 (paperback edition).
Other websites[change | change source]
- GLBT Historical Society (San Francisco). Holds the personal papers of José Sarria (collection no. 1996-01).
- José Sarria on glbtq.com
- José Sarria (as Widow Norton) at the Internet Movie Database
- Widow Norton on International Imperial Court Website
- Photos of the Black Cat Cafe at the San Francisco Public Library Historic Photo Collection