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Popular Topics in Literature
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In Memoriam
 
In Memoriam: José Sarria (1922-2013)
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 08/19/13
Last updated on: 08/20/13
 
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Legendary San Francisco drag queen and activist José Sarria died on August 19, 2013 in Albuquerque, New Mexico of cancer. As founder of the International Court system, Sarria presided over the expansion of drag culture into a vast network of charity balls and extravaganzas. But he may be best remembered for his activism in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s, when gay and lesbian bars were extorted for payoffs to the police and regularly raided in "clean-up" campaigns, when gay men were routinely arrested for cruising the city parks, and drag queens were habitually harassed for cross-dressing. In 1961, at the height of a police crackdown, Sarria ran for a seat on the city's Board of Supervisors. He thus became the first openly gay candidate to run for public office.

Cynthia Laird in the Bay Area Reporter reports that last year Sarria had been diagnosed with a rare cancer in the adrenal glands. He declined chemotherapy therapy for the illness.

Sarria gained fame as a performer from the late 1940s to 1964 at the Black Cat Cafe, a bohemian North Beach hangout. With accompanist James McGinnis (a.k.a. "Hazel"), he perfected a routine using his natural tenor voice that parodied opera and celebrities--augmented by ribald banter with the audience--and closed with the singing of "God Save Us Nelly Queens," often projected to the officers and inmates of the jail across the street.

Sarria injected his act with political commentary and with defiant pride. As one frequent patron of the Black Cat remembered, "we were not really saying 'God Save Us Nelly Queens.' We were saying 'We have our rights too.'"

When he ran for office in 1961, he knew he had no chance of winning the election, but that was not his goal. His 5600 votes demonstrated for the first time the heft of a gay voting block in the city. Moreover, as historian John D'Emilio has observed, it forced gay San Franciscans "to think about their identity, their sexual orientation, in political terms."

Sarria was honored by the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee with its Lifetime Achievement grand marshal title in 2005. On May 25, 2006 the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro district Jose Sarria Court. A plaque outlining his contributions is embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the public library at 1 José Sarria Court.

In 2009 the California state Assembly honored Sarria during an official celebration of LGBT Pride Month.

The video below reports on the dedication of the plaque honoring Sarria at 1 José Sarria Court.

 
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