A Reverent Farewell to the Widow Norton: José Sarria has died
One of the most fascinating San Franciscans, and most important gay activists of all time, died today.
José Sarria, also known as Empress José I, the Widow Norton, was 89 or 90 years old, and had lived a lifetime that spanned, and indelibly influenced, the modern gay rights movement.
Sarria was born in the 1920s, the child of a Colombian mother who supported his wish to crossdress from time to time. This was perhaps a prescient pastime for little José, because he first made his name, some years later, as a drag performer at San Francisco’s notorious Black Cat — a bar/café on the southern edge of the City’s Barbary Coast that became a gay and bohemian hangout after World War II. Sarria, who had served in the military and had already had his first significant love affair with a man, got a job as a waiter at the Black Cat, which had come under intense police scrutiny for its homosexual clientele. Bar owner Sol Stoumen was heterosexual but supported the freewheeling clientele mix, and fought back against charges that he kept a disorderly house. Sarria, undoubtedly politicized by the raids and legal troubles at his workplace, developed into gay San Francisco’s premier performance attraction — called “the Nightingale of Montgomery Street,” he morphed into a four-show-a-day cabaret singer at the Black Cat. Especially known for a gay-inflected version of the opera Carmen and the sing-along closing-time song “God Save Us Nelly Queens” (sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” of course), Sarria’s message was a proto-“Gay Is Good,” advocating freedom from shame and harassment. Sarria was free to come out specifically because of police harassment — he’d been arrested for solicitation during a sting at the St. Francis Hotel, which meant that he would not be able to pursue his original career path, teaching. Hence his trenchant quip during Black Cat shows: “United we stand — divided, they catch us one by one.”
Sarria’s boss Stoumen won a significant court battle in 1951 that affirmed that the loss of a business’s liquor license or other ability to conduct commerce couldn’t be based on the fact that gay people congregated on the premises. This was a stunning early victory, but caused the State of California to create its Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (the ABC), which was no friend to gay bars and which did its part to continually harass the Black Cat and other gay clubs. The Black Cat was driven out of business in 1963 — but by then, Sarria had used the bully pulpit of its stage and sing-alongs to run for San Francisco Supervisor. Increased policed harassment of gays after the 1959 mayoral elections inspired him to step up to the political process — and he finished 9th out of 34 candidates, not winning his seat (over 15 years later Harvey Milk, whose candidacy Sarria supported, would be the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor), but conclusively demonstrating that gays could be a voting bloc. “From that day on, nobody ran for anything in San Francisco without knocking on the door of the gay community,” Wikipedia quotes Sarria as saying.
Already an organizer and activist (Sarria responded to arrests of cross-dressers for female impersonation and “intent to deceive” by urging them to wear signs that said “I Am A Boy”) he co-founded homophile rights organizations The League for Civil Education and The Society for Individual Rights — the latter a particularly important pre-Stonewall organizing force. He also had a hand in creating the Tavern Guild, SF’s important organization of gay bar owners, which itself became a significant political entity in the city. And he didn’t leave drag behind — he assumed the title “Empress of San Francisco, José I, the Widow Norton.”
This moniker allied Sarria with legendary San Francisco eccentric Emperor Norton, the failed English businessman who lived out his days embraced and supported by San Franciscans, who accepted his specially-printed currency and fed and housed him (and loyal dogs Bummer and Lazarus, with whom he always shared his free lunches) until he died. Once Sarria had morphed into The Widow Norton she established annual treks to Norton’s graveside in Colma’s Woodlawn Cemetery which now attract busloads of drag queens and other fellow travelers. Sarria was the first Empress, but hardly the last — he inspired the creation of the Imperial Court System, a network of benevolent organizations based around drag balls and royal title elections. (Into the 1970s, when I came out in the Pacific Northwest, there were Imperial Court branches in towns that had essentially no other gay groups — this form of organizing spread across the US.)
The section of 16th Street that fronts the Harvey Milk Memorial branch of the SF Public Library was named after Sarria in 2006; a plaque in front of the branch acknowledges his contributions to San Francisco’s politics and culture. The site of the former Black Cat, at 710 Montgomery Street, also bears a plaque attesting to its significance to San Francisco history. And this winter’s annual pilgrimage to the grave of Emperor Norton in Colma will be bittersweet and festive, for Sarria long ago purchased the gravesite next to Norton’s — two of San Francisco’s most extraordinary denizens will finally rest together. Farewell and rest in peace, José Sarria.