Pioneering Gay Activist José Sarria Laid to Rest, Regally

(image by steven underhill)

José Sarria, a pioneering activist and drag queen who founded the Imperial Court system and was the first openly gay political candidate in the U.S. in 1961 (though lost his race for the SF Board of Supervisors), died in August but was given a dignified, elaborate, royal drag funeral in San Francisco on Friday. Mourners were given instructions, the HuffPost reports:

2_sarriaFemale titleholders from his Imperial Court — the gay organization and charity he started in 1965 — are requested to wear "black/dark full length (understated) mourning attire, crowns, shoulder length veils covering both crowns and one’s face" along with "black gloves (opera length if wearing short sleeves)."

Males titleholders are "respectfully requested to wear dark suits, crowns and white gloves."

Following the Grace Cathedral service, no fewer than 10 limousines and six buses will bring mourners to Colma's Woodlawn Cemetery for "a sensational and inspirational graveside ceremony" where Sarria will be laid to rest with full military honors, a band concert and a song from drag performer Donna Sachet.

The SF Chronicle reports:

The funeral combined all the pomp of the Episcopal Church with the flamboyance of gay life. The Right Rev. Mark Handley Andrus, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, presided. Two empresses and two public officials were among those who gave eulogies.

Sarria was hailed as a colorful pioneer in many guises, and also as a great man.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, compared him to Rosa Parks, a heroine of the civil rights movement in the 196os. Sarria, he said, had a passion and a mission: "He stood for justice. He said, 'There is nothing wrong with being gay, the crime is being caught.' "

Sarria's funeral – attended by civic dignitaries and persons dressed in the black lace of widows, and held in the Nob Hill cathedral that represents the very pinnacle of the San Francisco establishment – was a milestone in the long road to recognition by the gay community.

SF Gate has a full gallery.

SarriaSan Diego Gay & Lesbian News on Sarria's life:

Sarria died on Aug. 19 at his home in Albuquerque, N.M. He was 90. Sarria was born on Dec. 22, 1922 in San Francisco, the son of Julio Sarria of San Francisco and Maria Delores Maldonado, who came from Colombia. He graduated from Commerce High School in San Francisco. He then enlisted in the Army during World War II, and was discharged in 1945 at the rank of Staff Sergeant.

After the war, Sarria became one of the most famous drag queens of the 1950s and 1960s, often dressing up as an opera diva at the inclusive Black Cat Bar and entertaining the patrons. In those days, it was illegal to be gay, and San Francisco police would frequently raid the Black Cat and other bars to hunt down homosexuals. He was arrested many times.

Sarria would be the founder of the Imperial Court system, and in 1965 he declared himself Empress Jose I, The Widow Norton after winning a drag queen competition. The Imperial Court would spread across North America, and would become noted for raising millions of dollars for charities.

Here's another gallery of photos from SFist.


  1. bluedogj says

    Thanks for posting. As he often said, “Life is short, make the most of it.” Rest in Peace José and thanks for the trailblazing you did for all LGBTQ people!

  2. Dearccomrade says

    Thanks for posting and thank you José Sarria for blessing this world with your bravery and good deeds.

  3. clint says

    The pics at the link tell the tale, what a lovely tribute. It is an image of full inclusion, and for Christians is a glimpse of God’s Kingdom.

  4. jamal49 says

    Rest In Peace, dear Josecito. Your brave, courageous work on this earth is now completed. May others pick up where you left off. Sending love and condolences and best wishes to all your family and friends.

  5. QJ201 says

    And when the drag and femme haters visit TR to trash drag queens, trans folks and those they deem less than masculine…well read this then go f*ck yourself.

  6. alguien says

    i had the good fortune to watch jose and a couple of others in a private performance for someone’s birthday party back in the 90s.

    although their costumes were limited to the neck up (wigs, make-up, etc.), they still pulled off the illusion successfully.

    jose was incredibly gracious and friendly when i thanked him for his performance aferwords. he is a presence that will be missed.

  7. David From Canada says

    In his non-drag masculine pictures, Jose was stunningly beautiful-handsome. In these days and times he would be male model material. What a beauty!
    Godspeed Jose! You were certainly an original!!

  8. Michael Bedwell says

    Jose was discharged from the Army in 1947 not ’45 as so often repeated. The glamorous photo of him in uniform was taken in Berlin where he was stationed at the time.

  9. Ben says

    He was a handsome soldier, and a regal woman. Thank you for being yourself when being gay was brave, not today’s mass produced mediocrity.

  10. mike128 says

    A gorgeous event that shows that queens can mourn with elegance as much as they can be the life of a party. Much respect to everyone who made this event so beautiful.