José Julio Sarria (1923-2013, also known as The Widow Norton) was an activist, drag queen, singer, Empress of the Imperial Court in San Francisco, and Gay icon who used drag, humor, and song to help Gay people become aware of their rights.
José Sarria was born December 22, 1923 to an unwed mother who left Colombia and settled in San Francisco. After serving in the army in World War II, he attended college in 1949, studying to be a teacher on the GI Bill. But when he was arrested for public indecency in the Oak Room, an all-men’s bar in the St. Francis Hotel, his tarnished record prevented him from teaching in schools.
The Black Cat
The story of José Sarria is intimately linked to the Black Cat, a San Francisco Gay bar that featured drag queens as its entertainment. When the bar lost its liquor license because of its clientele, its owner, Sol Stoumen, hired an attorney who shifted the focus of the case from sexual immorality to the rights of homosexual people. In 1951, the California Supreme Court restored the bar’s liquor license, arguing that despite its reputation, there was no evidence of illegal or immoral conduct on the bar’s premises, a ruling that granted Gay bars in San Francisco greater legal standing as legitimate businesses.
Sarria began working at the Black Cat as a waiter. His high tenor voice, wit, and sense of humor earned him a job as a performer. He was dubbed “The Nightingale of Montgomery Street” by newspaper columnist Herb Caen, and soon became an important part of the entertainment. “I became the Black Cat,” Sarria said in Nan Alamilla Boyd’s book, Wide Open Town.
Parody Drag and Carmen
Sarria described his performance style as parody drag. Performing for a clientele that consisted of people living double lives (Straight in public, Gay in private), he was a witty Gay man in women’s clothing onstage, and a witty, effeminate Gay man offstage. Sarria felt that many of the problems faced by the Gay community could be traced to its lack of visibility as a people who demanded their rights. Reflecting the pro-Gay ethos of the bar and its owner, Sarria was famous for his slogans, including “There is nothing wrong with being gay, the crime is getting caught!” and “We could change the laws if we weren’t always hiding.” He would tell the Black Cat clientele, “United we stand, divided they arrest us one by one.”
Sarria performed parodies of operas, especially a re-working of Carmen set in modern-day San Francisco. As Carmen, Sarria would cruise (look for men with which to have sex) Union Square. The vice squad would chase her, but she would outwit them as the audience shouted their support. At the end of each show, he asked the assembled patrons to link arms and join him in singing “God Save Us Nelly Queens” (to the tune of “God Save the Queen”/“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”). He occasionally took the customers from the Black Cat to the jail across the street from the bar so they could sing to those incarcerated within. “One of the officers in charge would open the window so the inmates could hear us,” said Sarria in an interview with Mickey Weems (November 2009).
Bid for Political Office
In addition to his role at the Black Cat, Sarria campaigned for a position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 as the first openly Gay candidate in American politics. The election was for five at-large seats in a citywide ballot. His campaign slogan was “Gay is Good,” and he won 5,600 votes, finishing ninth. He said he ran to show it could be done, and seventeen years later, it would indeed happen. After campaigning and winning the election for San Francisco’s Fifth District, Harvey Milk would serve on the Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly Gay man elected to public office in California.
Activism, Charity, and the Imperial Court
In 1963, Sarria took part in founding the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), a community-oriented activist organization that sponsored bowling, bridge, voter registration, political symposiums, and published Vector, a magazine for Gay people. In 1965, he formed the Imperial Court System of female impersonators, which grew to become an international association of charitable organizations for drag queens and kings in the USA, Canada, and Mexico, each with its own royalty and titles. Sarria served as Empress José I (or, Absolute Empress I), the Widow Norton, wife of Norton I, Emperor of North America and Protector of Mexico. In the Weems interview, Sarria said his claim to be the wife of Joshua Norton, an eccentric and beloved nineteenth-century San Franciscan, “is indisputable since Norton is dead.” Sarria made an annual pilgrimage to lay flowers at Norton’s grave in Colmo, California.
Sarria ruled over the Courts for 43 years until 2007. During his reign, he and members of the Imperial Court appeared in the opening scenes of the film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). On May 25, 2006, the city of San Francisco named a portion of 16th Street in the Castro District “José Sarria Court,” and a metal plaque commemorating the event (with a picture of the Empress José I) was embedded in the sidewalk. According to his friend James Mangia, Sarria said a year before he died, “I’m not ready to die yet.” “You’re 90 years old, you’ve lived an extraordinary life. Maybe it’s time to let go,” Mangia told him. Sarria’s response: “Yeah, but there’s a few more queens I need to bury first before I go.” (http://sfist.com/2013/09/07/photos_from_pioneering_activist_jos.php#photo-1)
Special acknowledgement to JD Doyle and his superb site, Queer Musical Heritage, for many of the pictures used in this article (queermusicheritage.us).
Boyd, Nan Alamilla, Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California, 2003.
D’Emilio, John, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.
Gorman, Michael R., The Empress is a Man: Stories from the Life of José Sarria. New York: Haworth, 1998.