It wasn’t until I saw the wooden casket covered with white roses descending deeper and deeper into the earth that I realized that his majesty was really gone. After a quarter of a century of being his friend, his confidant there would be no more coronations, road trips, phone calls, making each other laugh, angry or cry. So few people get to meet their heroes, I was blessed to have befriended mine, and had the unenviable privilege of taking care of him when he needed me the most, when he was at his weakest, crankiest and most vulnerable as he fought his last battle with cancer. It’s hard to watch your hero crumble and die.
After 90 years of fighting the system, he quietly let go on August 19th. Jose Julio Sarria was first generation American of Colombian and Nicaraguan descent. He came into this world kicking and screaming, born into poverty, out of wedlock, orphaned, adopted, and self-anointed himself as Empress I, Jose. He hated the label “drag queen” because he saw himself as a balanced fusion of the male and female spirit in one body, Jose was the epitome of the third sex.
After all, he fought valiantly in the Battle of the Bulge, and with his unit, liberated a concentration camp during World War II. In 1949, Jose had left one war only to come home to another as the war on gays was just heating up. This time the front lines were behind the doors of a bohemian bar in the North Beach section of San Francisco called the Black Cat Café. Although drag was illegal to do, he brazenly took on the establishment from a stage made from four folding tables shoved together. In his tenor voice, he gave the battle cry with the sound of arias accompanied by a honky-tonk piano player named “Hazel.” From 1951 to its closing on Halloween 1963, Jose performed one woman opera parodies infused with gay storylines.
Dressed as Carmen, Aida or Madam Butterfly, Jose stood up in bright red heels like a burning torch screaming at his patrons that there was nothing wrong with them. With slogans as “United we Stand, divided they’ll catch us one by one” and “Gay is good, the crime is getting caught,” Jose gave the lunatic fringe more than just hope, he gave them a reason to fight back.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, crowned him the “Nightingale of Montgomery Street.” Life magazine called him San Francisco’s “Queen Bee” because he gave sanctuary to the closeted sailors, beatniks, artists, lesbians and gray flannel suit types who sought refuge from the unholy terror of the 1950s—the repressive, commie-pinko, fag bashing era of the McCarthy Witch hunts, the dizzying paranoiac heights of the Cold War, Korean War and the atom bomb. Back then, just telling your family that you were a homosexual could earn you a one way ticket to a mental hospital where you could be given shock treatments, drugs, castration or even a lobotomy without your permission to cure you of your “illness.” Suicide was the norm for us back then. He rescued sexual outlaws from the shadows of the back rooms, tearooms and alleyways and enlightened them with the knowledge of their civil rights.
Jose kept the police from closing down the café when he joined forces with the Cat’s proprietor, Saul Stouman, to fight anti-gay ordinances. Together they took the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board all the way to California’s State Supreme Court in 1951 and won a landmark case that allowed gays to congregate and drink in public. His Majesty knew how to circumvent the law.
When San Francisco City Supervisors vowed to shut down all the gay bars in 1961 for “disorderly behavior,” Jose took his fight to the voting booths. Most politicos couldn’t tell you that he was the first openly gay person to run for a public office in this country, 11 yrs before Harvey Milk. His platform was “Equality for All under the Law.” From his campaign headquarters at the Black Cat, he always boasted that there were at least 10,000 voting queens in San Francisco. He was almost right. Jose lost the race, but received nearly 6,000 votes, and forever established our voices as a voting block to the injustices from the majority.
After the city closed the Black Cat Café on “disorderly house” charges in 1964, Jose reinvented himself by proclaiming herself Empress I Jose, founder of the International Court System which has raised millions of dollars for AIDs and other charities. It’s the country’s second largest gay nonprofit with 65 chapters. He even did the first AIDS commercial back in 1985.
Jose was a beacon of hope for the LGBT community during its darkest times, but if you walked down the Castro, Weho and Christopher Street today to ask passersby’s what he did for us, most people wouldn’t know how to respond. I believe Jose hasn’t received the recognition he deserves because he wore a dress, and so few get taken seriously when wearing a dress.
But humor and music were his weapons of choice. It was political theatre at its most lethal and persuasive. He shifted our collective consciousness with his revolutionary comedy.
He’d cut the vice squad to the quick, exposing them as they walked in by making the closeted gays and lesbians stand up and sing God, Save Us Nelly Queens to the tune of Britain’s National anthem as the vice squad shamefully retreated out the café door.
In October of 2102, I held a screenplay reading of Jose’ life entitled The Black Cat at the Pasadena Playhouse. Jose and I had been working on it for a number of years. After the performance, he confessed that it was so close to the truth it was difficult for him to watch. I saw Jose just days before he passed away. He was excited to hear that our script had made it to the second round of the Sundance Screenwriter’s lab. He was confident our film about his life at the Cat would be made. After 24 years, it was our final conversation.
Jose wore many hats and masks throughout his life, but I’ll be remember him most for playing the role of the political court jester who made us realize how ridiculous we were for being so afraid of ourselves. Most people didn’t know who Jose Sarria was or what he did to open up our minds, or to free us from the oppressive social restrictions that kept us bound. He fought for our right to love whom we choose, but more importantly, he fought for our divine right to love ourselves.
By Joseph Castel