The Queen of San Francisco

The first openly gay U.S. political candidate works to save a slice of gay history

Above: José Julio Sarria dances as the Sugar Plum Fairy, December 17, 1995. (Lee Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis)

When I first phoned José Julio Sarria at his home in Palm Springs, California, the octogenarian was having a bad day—he had just found out that his friend likely wasn’t coming to take him on a much-needed grocery run. Not a good time, perhaps, for me to request a favor, but for a book I was working on, I needed a photo of Sarria performing a drag version of Faust at San Francisco’s Black Cat Café in 1961. “I know just the picture you mean,” he said, his mood obviously lifting, “and I’ll start looking for it as soon as we get off the phone.”

Famous for his camp Sunday-afternoon opera performances at the Black Cat and Backstage cafés, and for starting the Imperial Court System—one of the country’s oldest and biggest gay charitable organizations—Sarria has another distinction: 50 years ago this month, he became the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States, running for San Francisco city supervisor 12years before Harvey Milk.

His candidacy grew out of the League for Civil Education, a gay activist organization that he co-founded. When political and community leaders scoffed at Sarria’s claim that 10,000 gay voters lived in the city, his race was on. “I was angry, and I did it to prove a point,” Sarria told me: “that I had a right to run for office and that I didn’t have to hide. I never hid anything.” He also wanted to show that the gay community wasn’t just a “figment of my imagination.” Point proved: he won nearly 6,000 votes and placed 29th in a field of 33 candidates for the five seats open on the Board of Supervisors. “From that day on,” Sarria told me, “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.”

Sarria has amassed a trove of documents and artifacts covering more than half a century of his life as an activist and leader in San Francisco’s gay community. Even the seemingly trivial items can tell a story. When a member of a group of gay athletes touring the José Sarria Collection at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco questioned why anyone would care about the price of a tube of lipstick in 1946, the tour leader, Sonoma State University professor Don Romesburg, responded: “One of the things I study is female impersonators, and you can actually go and find out how much it cost to be a professional female impersonator, versus his labor contract [where he performed]. You can show that they weren’t making any money. And this is the only place in the world that I can find this out.”

Although some of Sarria’s collection has already gone to the San Francisco Historical Society, the Smithsonian, and other institutions, plenty of artifacts are with him at home. “I can produce when people think that something is un-produceable,” he boasted. (I got my picture, for example.) So he spends his days sorting and labeling. “It’s history,” he told me, “and I have to make sure it gets into the hands of someone responsible. When they come to clean out houses like mine,” he laughed, “they usually come with a shredder.”