The drag queen activist who ran for office 16 years before Harvey Milk

Jose Sarria
Jose Sarria Photo: YouTube screenshot

Young Jose Sarria thought he’d grow up to be a school teacher, not an influential drag queen, groundbreaking politician, significant activist, and war veteran. But he came to believe: “You don’t have to conform, you are what you are and that’s it. I am what I am, and that’s it.”

The change in life plan didn’t start as his idea. It was set in motion when his dream of becoming a teacher was stolen from him by homophobia. He was arrested in 1947 during a police entrapment sting while using a bathroom in a hotel in the San Francisco Bay area. Even though he denied the accusation, he pleaded guilty so that his name would not appear in the newspaper.  But with a “morals” charge on his record, he could never be a teacher.

Sarria was resourceful and had already started a new job as a part-time waiter at the Black Cat Cafe shortly before the arrest happened—a job that would change his life. It had been meant to be just a gig to get him through college, which he had started when he got back from serving in the Army during World War II. (He chose which branch of the Armed Forces to join based on which had the most attractive uniforms, but the Army had been his third choice after the Navy and Marines rejected him for not quite meeting the minimum height and weight requirements.) 

He moved from waiter to performer at the Black Cat gay bar in Oakland where he was a fan favorite, especially for his performance of the opera Carmen. His singing in drag was not the only thing the patrons of the Black Cat appreciated about Sarria.

They also loved how after every performance he’d talk to the crowd as gay person to gay person — a rare occurrence in the 1940s and ’50s — and give them hope and inspiration for living their lives under oppressive circumstances, telling them that simply existing wasn’t wrong. One man remembered, tearing up, “José was the first person to ever tell me that I was okay, that I wasn’t a second-class citizen.”

Sarria also told the patrons they should work together for change. “United we stand, divided they will catch us one by one,” he’d often say. Then he’d lead the group, holding hands, in singing “God Save Us Nelly Queens” to the tune of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

He also gave drag queens and queer bar patrons concrete ways to fight back against police oppression. One Halloween in the 1950s, Sarria figured out a way to outsmart the police by looking up the exact wording of the anti-crossdressing law they used to arrest drag queens at the stroke of midnight on November 1 when the law would go back into effect after being temporarily suspended for the holiday.

Seeing that the law’s text said it was about preventing fraud, she created felt pins for the queens to wear that said, “I am a boy” on them. When the officers approached them to arrest them for wearing dresses, they said that they were clearly stating their sex so there was no intent to deceive. None of them were arrested that night.

Jose Sarria
The Jose Sarria Foundation Jose Sarria

It was this spirit of activism that led Sarria to be instrumental in the founding of multiple important early gay rights organizations in the 1960s. One was the Society for Individual Rights, a group that helped “gays in difficulties” in a variety of ways like bailing them out of jail and advocated for the elimination of anti-gay laws.

Another was the Tavern Guild, the first gay business association in the U.S. This coalition protected gay bars against the police harassment that so common at the time by developing a phone network to warn each other of police raids and also raising funds to loan to bars and bartenders who became unemployed due to the raids.  

Sarria was named queen of the ball at the Beaux Arts Ball, a Tavern Guild fundraiser in 1965. With his dramatic flair, he said he was an empress instead. The title stuck and helped to lead to the blossoming of the Imperial Court System, a nonprofit still in existence today that raises money for LGBTQ+ causes. Sarria is very fondly remembered as the founding mother, “Absolute Empress I de San Francisco,” of the Imperial Court, which has over 65 chapters across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.

But Sarria didn’t only subscribe to the idea of monarchy — he believed in democracy, too. In 1961, he was the first person to run for political office in the U.S. while being out as gay. He believed to stop the constant police harassment, the gay community needed the clout and representation.

He traded in his dress and heels for a suit and tie and ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While he didn’t win his election, he got enough votes to show that gay people could have power as a voting bloc. “I proved my point,” Sarria said. “From that day, at every election, the politicians in San Francisco have talked to us.” 

Sixteen years later, Harvey Milk won that same seat Sarria had run for. Sarria paved the way for Milk and so many others through his activism, setting up organizations that had years of impact on LGBTQ+ rights, and influencing the drag scene for decades.

When he passed at the age of 90 in 2013, the remembrances from community members and prominent figures poured in, including a California State Senator comparing him to Rosa Parks at his funeral which was presided over by the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California. It wasn’t the first or last time Sarria was called the Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Ultimately, Sarria’s message was one of unity. “Nobody likes to be part of an ‘I’ community,” he said when talking about founding the Court System. “We had to become a ‘we’ community. We have to work together, we have to help one another.”

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