JOSE JULIO SARRIA also known as The Grand Mere, Absolute Empress I de San Francisco, and the Widow Norton, was an American political activist born on this date (d: 2013); Sarria was born in San Francisco, California, and in 1961 became the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. He is also remembered for performing as a drag queen at the Black Cat Bar and as the founder of the Imperial Court System.

José Sarria was born in San Francisco, California, to Maria Dolores Maldonado and Julio Sarria. His family was of Spanish and Colombian origin. His mother Maria was born in Bogotá to an upper class and politically active family. During the events of the Thousand Days War and following her mother’s death, Maria sought out the protection of her mother’s friend, General Rafael Uribe Uribe, to escape Colombia. The general located Maria’s surviving uncle, who took her to the American consulate. There she was made a ward of the United States and relocated to Panama. “My mother got to Panama with directions to the home of a family called Kopp. He was the chairman of the big German beer company there”, said Sarria. “She went to work for the Kopps. … My mother was the upstairs maid and took care of the children.” In 1919, she relocated to Guatemala City but remained there for just six months and, in 1920, sailed to San Francisco. As Sarria reported it, “Now on the boat is where my mother met my father, Julio Sarria. He came from a large and very wealthy family, very well known. … His grandparents came from Spain.”

Following his military service, Sarria returned to San Francisco. He enrolled in college with plans of becoming a teacher. He and his sister Teresa began frequenting the Black Cat Bar, a center of the city’s beat and bohemian scene. Sarria and Teresa both became smitten with a waiter named Jimmy Moore and bet as to which of them could get him into bed first. José won the bet and soon Moore and he were lovers. Sarria began covering for Moore when he was unable to work and soon Black Cat owner Sol Stoumen hired him as a cocktail waiter.

At around this time, Sarria was arrested for solicitation in a sting operation at the St. Francis Hotel. Sarria maintained his innocence, stating that the arresting officer knew him personally. “But they had to make an example of somebody … I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Nonetheless, he was convicted and subjected to a large fine. Sarria, understanding that his conviction meant he could never become certified as a teacher, dropped out of college. Unsure of how to find work, he took the advice of a drag performer named Michelle and entered a drag contest at an Oakland bar called Pearl’s. Sarria took second place, winning a two-week performance contract at the bar at $50 a week. “I decided then to be the most notorious impersonator or homosexual or fairy or whatever you wanted to call me–and you would pay me for it.” Returning to San Francisco, he picked up some small singing jobs while still cocktail waiting at the Black Cat.

Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, becoming the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. Although Sarria never expected to win he almost did win by default. On the last day for candidates to file petitions, city officials realized that there were fewer than five candidates running for the five open seats, which would have guaranteed Sarria a seat. By the end of the day, a total of 34 candidates had filed. LCE co-founder Strait began printing the LCE News in part to support Sarria’s candidacy. Sarria garnered some 6,000 votes in the citywide race, finishing ninth. This was not enough to win a seat but was enough to shock political pundits and set in motion the idea that a gay voting bloc could wield real power in city politics. “[He] put the gay vote on the map”, said Terence Kissack, former executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. “He made it visible and showed there was a constituency.” As Sarria put it, “From that day on, nobody ran for anything in San Francisco without knocking on the door of the gay community.”

With the demise of the Black Cat, Sarria helped found the Society for Individual Rights (SIR) in 1963. SIR grew out of a split between Sarria and Strait over the direction that LCE was heading. Strait and his supporters wanted to focus more on publishing the group’s newsletter, while Sarria and his backers wanted to maintain focus on street-level organizing. SIR sponsored both social and political functions, including bowling leagues, bridge clubs, voter registration drives and “Candidates’ Nights” and published its own magazine, Vector. In association with the Tavern Guild, SIR printed and distributed “Pocket Lawyers”. These pocket-sized guides offered advice on what to do if arrested or harassed by police. SIR lasted for 17 years.

Crowned Queen of the Beaux Arts Ball in 1964 by the Tavern Guild, Sarria, stating that he was “already a queen”, proclaimed himself “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton”. Sarria devised the name “Widow Norton” as a reference to the much-celebrated citizen of 19th century San Francisco, Joshua Norton, who had declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico in 1859. Sarria organized elaborate annual pilgrimages to lay flowers on Norton’s grave in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, California. He purchased a plot adjacent to Norton’s where he is now interred.

Sarria’s assumption of the title of Empress led to the establishment of the Imperial Court System, a network of non-profit charitable organizations throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico that raises money for various beneficiaries. Sarria is much revered within the hierarchy of the Imperial Court System and is affectionately and informally known as “Mama” or “Mama José” among Imperial Court members. The “José Honors Awards” are presented to Imperial Court dignitaries and others in a bi-annual banquet held in Sarria’s honor.

Sarria’s imperial-drag-themed funeral was held on September 6, 2013, at Grace Cathedral of San Francisco, with the Right Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, presiding; some 1,000 mourners attended the service. Various local and state elected officials participated, including California State Sen. Mark Leno, former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos, San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros, and members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Leaders of the Imperial Court System and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence attended in full regalia, with the formal mourning dress for the court dictated by Sarria in advance. Other dignitaries at the funeral included Stuart Milk, nephew of politician Harvey Milk and head of the Harvey Milk Foundation.

Immediately following the funeral, a cortege of approximately 500 mourners accompanied Sarria’s body to Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma, where he was buried with full military honors in a plot he had previously purchased at the foot of the grave of Joshua Norton.