- Illustration by Shan Stumpf
[As is our tradition, we’ve profiled some of the lesser-known individuals we lost in 2013 – people who, through their contributions to our culture, left this world a better place than they found it.]
Long before San Francisco legend Harvey Milk was “trying to recruit you” into accepting the growing political power of the LGBT community, a far more flamboyant political force was afoot in San Francisco – one who would go on to pave the way for a movement that had barely breathed its first public breath before 1961, the year that José Julio Sarria launched his campaign for city assemblyman.
Sarria was, at that time, a noted drag persona and hell-raiser in the days of sodomy-law enforcement and gay bar police raids. Rather than take the oppression as the slap across the make-up that it was, Sarria reportedly borrowed a suit (he was lacking in masculine formal wear, legend has it) and decided to run a legitimate political campaign as a legitimate member of society. He had, after all, earned it.
Prior to his run, Sarria served in active combat with the Army in World War II. Upon return to San Francisco, he had ambitions to become a teacher, a career path that was ultimately thwarted by a “morality” arrest in a public bathroom. Sarria took a job at the Black Cat Café, a noted gay bar in the city, and in an almost operatic twist – he was known for his opera drag, after all – became a de facto community leader. And, likewise, a target of the raids.
“I had a right to run for office,” Sarria told The Atlantic magazine in a 2011 profile. “I was angry, and I did it to prove a point: That I had a right to run for office and that I didn’t have to hide. I never hid anything.”
Sarria garnered more than 5,000 votes and, in doing so, solidified the position of gays in the political process. He would go on to launch numerous equal-rights groups throughout the rest of his life while maintaining his dolled-up eccentricities. In 1965, he declared himself the “first Empress of San Francisco,” according to the New York Times, and created what would eventually become the gay International Court System, a 65-chapter equality group with a flair for the absurd. Sarria’s funeral, as he had requested, was attended largely by drag queens in heavy black veils. But his influence was no charade.
“From that day on,” Sarria told The Atlantic, referring to his 1961 race, “there’s never been a politician in San Francisco – not even a dog-catcher – that did not go and talk to the gay community. And we, from that day on, elected people. It was our vote that got ’em over the hump.”