Sarria passed away in Los Ranchos, New Mexico August 19, 2013, at the age of 90.
“Jose was a collector of fine jewels, coins, antiques and oil paintings,” said Sarria’s executor Tony Ross. “This is a great opportunity to own a bit of LGBT history and for the gay community to support a documentary long overdue on one of our unsung heroes.”
Award winning Los Angeles filmmakers Dante Alencastre and Daniel Carrera are in pre-production on Sarria’s documentary “Nelly Queen,” slated to be released in 2015. Jose Sarria was the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in the United States in 1961, more than a decade before Harvey Milk.
When San Francisco city officials vowed to shut down all the gay bars in 1961, the 38 year-old cabaret singer ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Although Sarria lost the election, he garnered nearly 6,000 votes, proving for the first time in American politics that there was a gay voting bloc.
Speaker John A. Pérez of the California Assembly noted that “Jose Sarria’s trailblazing run for public office as an openly gay man laid the groundwork for LGBT Californians to run for public office proudly and openly. But Jose’s refusal to be silenced or shamed back into the closet–in an era where LGBT People were routinely discriminated against–was the greatest contribution to our movement.”
In 1965, Jose Sarria founded the ICS in San Francisco when a group of gay bar owners formed a Tavern Guild as a means to stand in solidarity with one another under the pressure of police harassment. The Guild put on the first large public drag ball in San Francisco’s history. The following year, Sarria declared himself Absolute Empress I Jose of the newly formed nonprofit.
ICS was intended mainly for “camp” fun as its members derived royal titles and elected Empresses and Emperors at annual Coronations. However, under Jose’s guidance the organization grew to 70 chapters, making it the second largest LGBT nonprofit corporation in the U.S., and since its inception has raised millions of dollars for AIDs organizations and other charities.
Jose Sarria was born in San Francisco in 1923, to parents of Colombian and Nicaraguan descent. He served in combat during World War II and was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1949. When the decorated veteran returned home from Europe, he found that the war on gays was just heating up as vice squads routinely arrested patrons at the Black Cat and other clandestine gay bars. Sarria’s dream of becoming a teacher was shattered after his own arrest on trumped up “lewd and lascivious” charges. Knowing he was ineligible to teach with a “sex deviant” record, Sarria dropped out of San Jose State University and began waiting on tables at the Black Cat Café in the city’s beatnik section of North Beach.
“They labeled me a fairy, so I was going to be the fiercest fairy they’d ever seen,” Sarria often recalled. As a drag performer, Jose Sarria made good on his promise of being the “fiercest fairy” the city had ever seen by turning the Cat into a rallying place for closeted gays seeking refuge from an oppressive society. He sang torch songs in his tenor voice accompanied by a honky-tonk piano. On Sunday afternoons the diva performed one man opera parodies, replacing the straight love story for a gay one. For nearly a decade, until the Cat’s closing in 1963, Sarria played Carmen, Aida, or Madam Butterfly to sell out crowds of 300 people.
When the vice squad entered the café to entrap patrons, Sarria exposed them by having his audience stand up and sing “God, Save Us Nelly Queens,” a takeoff on Britain’s national anthem. Jose Sarria preached hope to his patrons with such slogans as “Gay is good, the crime is getting caught!” and United we stand, divided they’ll catch us one by one!”
Jose Sarria’s heir apparent to the ICS, Queen Mother of the Americas, Nicole the Great summed it up best, “Jose is the Rosa Parks of the gay movement. The auction proceeds will support the documentary which in turn will help cement our founder’s sovereign place in history.”
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