José Sarria didn't know while he was doing it that he was the first openly gay person to run for office in the United States. "I found out later," he says. In 1961, the female impersonator fought his way onto the ballot for San Francisco city supervisor, though he had no desire to win the position. "I wanted to prove that I had the right as a gay person to run for public office," he says. "Because you must remember that back then, gay people thought they had no rights, that they were second-rate citizens."
Sarria maintains a strong sense of entitlement: "Well," he finishes, "I've never been a second-rate citizen."
Sarria is coming to Albuquerque to receive the Standing Ovation award at the 10th anniversary of the " Come Out” showcase on Oct. 4. The annual production is the "most spectacular female impersonator show in the state of New Mexico," according to a news release, and is held in commemoration of National Coming Out Day, which is Oct. 11.
Harvey Milk reserved a place in the history books as the first openly gay man elected in the United States to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. (He was assassinated a year later.) But Sarria was the first to run, and he did so 16 years before Milk. All candidates at the time were required to list a major party affiliation, and Sarria ran as a Democrat. "I forced them into it," he says. San Francisco's Democrats said they didn't want to back him. "I'm not asking for your backing," he replied. "They said, Well, go to the Republicans. I said, I'm not going no place. You either do it, or I take you to court."
People thought Sarria was crazy, he says, but they listened to him. He managed 5,600 votes. When he began his campaign, there were nine people on the ballot for six available slots on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "When they realized that I wasn't full of baloney, they got nervous, and by the time the registration polls closed, there was 33 people running." Still, of all the candidates, the performer who led bar patrons in rousing rounds of "God Save Us Nellie Queens" at the end of each night came in ninth place.
Sarria served nine years as a soldier in World War II. He never lived what he calls a "double life," he says, and what you see is what you get. "I don't know how I survived the Army, but I did." His family called him their artistic and aesthetic child, he says. "I believe in eating toast off of a plate." He had high-end underwear at age 14, which he took to the war. "We were allowed 25 pounds, and in that 25 pounds were my loafers and my silk underwear." Before every battle, he took a bath and put them on. "I was going to be nice and pretty when I died."
He returned from the war and chose a new career path. "I had a beautiful voice, and that's what I used. I borrowed my mother's credit card, and I had her dressmaker make me an outfit." He won an amateur hour as a female impersonator. Sarria performed opera in a more dangerous age when the singing was live, police harassment was common and there were far fewer queens. His name as an entertainer was either simply José or The Nightingale of Montgomery Street. He performed for years at the Black Cat Cafe on Montgomery Street, an early gay- and lesbian-friendly bar that was also a beat poet hangout.
Hollywood was interested in his voice, he says, but he was ahead of his time. "They couldn't use me because I was so gay, you understand?" he says. "In the early '50s, you didn't have any gay things like you have today. The word wasn't even mentioned. But I was standing on the table and saying, There's nothing wrong with being gay—just getting caught."
Sarria's irreverent, un-PC demeanor underscores his speech. He's quick to point out that he's not the first gay man to run for office in America, just the first who was openly so. Things have improved for the gay community, he says, except there are too many people still denying their sexuality. "They're a bunch of closet queens. They're afraid. They want to be like their neighbors," he says, a faint sneer in the emphasis of that last word.
He doesn't believe in the word "
Sarria describes himself as an activist. In 1965, he created a character that would become the basis of the International Imperial Court System, a far-reaching charitable network. She's the Widow Norton, fake former wife of real historical figure Joshua Norton, a miner and rice baron who in 1859 declared himself the Emperor of the United States and the Protector of Mexico.
The International Imperial Court System has been in place ever since and has grown 70 chapters all over North America. "The first thing we raised money for in the United States was for women's breast cancer," Sarria says. "We were the ones that started the pink ribbon." Gay or straight, anyone who believes in human rights is welcome to become a member of the Imperial Court. "I needed something to unite the community, to make the gay people realize they were a part of everything, that they weren't separate." José as the Widow Norton sanctioned others to form courts, which would then raise funds for their communities.
Sarria never got back into politics, though he says that's a mistake. "I proved my point. That's what I was after, but I should have thought of tomorrow," he says. "I would have been a very successful politician, I think." He didn't realize until it was over what he had done by running for office. He heard from many he affected, he says, and he felt embarrassed. "I got letters from people saying, Thank you for being what you are, because it made me see the light," he says. "Just stop to think. Because of Obama, how many Black people now have a better feeling of themselves because he may be president?"
In 2006, the city of San Francisco named a section of 16th Street after Sarria. "I thanked them," he says. "I said, Thank you for giving me the honor before I died, because normally they do these things after you're dead."
These days, Sarria spends his time traveling and giving speeches about what life was like for gay people decades ago. He's taking good care of himself, he says, "so I can live a little longer and bury some of my enemies."