Last updated: June 27, 2022
San Francisco has many overlapping histories. Military history, LGBTQ+ culture, immigrant stories, and much more make up its roots. For José Sarria, a LGBTQ+ activist in San Francisco, all the above applied.
José Sarria was born in 1922 in the Bay Area to a single mother from Colombia. Sarria was bilingual and became proficient in language when he began learning German and French in high school. Though it was never outwardly spoken, Sarria’s family was always accepting of his sexuality and partners. Sarria planned to become a teacher, until December 7th 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Army, forced the United States to enter World War II. Entering military service to protect your country became a widely held feeling amongst young men. There was a stigma against being rejected from the military, especially for homosexuality. The challenges Sarria faced upon enlisting however stemmed from his Latinx heritage in an all white military unit.
After first serving at the Cooks and Bakers school, Sarria was assigned to drive Major Mataxis around, and the pair became good friends. Eventually Mataxis was promoted to colonel, providing both men with respect from their company. Sarria went to Europe with the colonel and was promoted to staff sergeant. He was stationed in Berlin after the German surrender. He found himself in a newly bustling LGBTQ+ scene. He formed a relationship with a famous opera costume designer and cabaret performer named Andre.
“I was going to stay in Berlin with Andre, but there was no way I could explain to the colonel or to the Army that I needed to stay. I couldn’t bring [Andre] home...”
Sarria was discharged from the military when he returned to San Francisco in 1947. Afterwards he continued his plan to become a teacher, using his skills in language and music. Sarria used his GI Bill to return to school, and to support himself he became a waiter. One day, Sarria spent his night sitting at a bar. In the restroom another man began to flirt with Sarria, and two undercover police officers arrested both men. Sarria had not reciprocated the other man's advances, but it did not matter. Due to his arrest, he could not get a teaching credential and the opera wouldn’t hire him.
José Sarria began working at the Black Cat Cafe as a waiter and host. The Black Cat first opened in 1906 and for a long time was considered a “bohemian haven”. In its early days it was frequented by artists and activists. As more service members came into San Francisco during the war, the Black Cat started to draw a more LGBTQ+ oriented crowd. José Sarria said, “I was more of a hostess, greeting people, and I would sing a song now and then... I started performing more, and I started doing female impersonation. I began opera parodies. I became very popular. I became the Black Cat.” Sarria performed alongside Hazel the pianist. He brought tremendous business to the Black Cat, using his vocal talents and quick wit to make people feel comfortable and entertained.
José Sarria stands on stage in a black dress and curly blonde wig. Image courtesy of The José Sarria Foundation
Black Cat Cafe
The military did not want its service members visiting LGBTQ+ establishments. The Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board put the Black Cat on its list of “off limits and out of bounds” establishments. This meant that any military personnel was barred from visiting the Black Cat in or out of uniform. The Black Cat was also required to put an “off limits” sign in their window. In many cases distinguishing the bar in this way actually attracted curious soldiers to the bar. It told LGBTQ+ military personal exactly where to go if they wanted to be with their community. A veteran, and fan of Sarria’s said: “The Navy would publish a list of bars that were forbidden and why. That’s how I found the Black Cat and José. It was the early fifties. José was the first person to ever tell me that I was okay, that I wasn’t a second-class citizen.”
In 1949 the Board of Equalization indefinitely suspended the Black Cat’s liquor license because it was “a hangout for persons of homosexual tendencies.” Owner of the bar and Holocaust survivor, Sol Stoumen, fought this decision and hired an attorney named Morris Lowenthal. He argued that LGBTQ+ people had the right to assemble. The case made it all the way to the California Supreme Court. In 1951 the Court ruled in favor of the Black Cat and ordered that their liquor license be reinstated. An early decision that declared LGBTQ+ people had rights to be protected.
"Even habitual or regular meetings may be for purely social and harmless purposes, such as the consumption of food and drink, and it is to be presumed that a person is innocent of crime or wrong and that law is being obeyed.” -- California Supreme Court
Board of Supervisors
Between 1951 and 1955 The Black Cat and José Sarria experienced great success with less police harassment. José became famous for his outrageous routines but also for his inspiring declarations of pride. At the end of his shows he would sing God Save Us Nelly Queens to the tune of God Save the Queen. Sarria said, “I sang the song as a kind of anthem, to get them realizing that we had to work together, that we were responsible for our lives. We could change the laws if we weren’t always hiding. God Save Us Nelly Queens, that’s what you are, be proud of it... ” Sarria performed all over the city for a diverse group of people, even being invited to perform at the American Legion in full drag.
In 1955 San Francisco elected a new mayor and the state of California created the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. The new mayor and organization worked with the military and local police to develop a tougher strategy to shut down LGBTQ+ establishments. The police increased undercover cops in bars, used stereotypes to arrest individuals, and falsify evidence to close bars/clubs. This discrimination and harassment galvanized Sarria to do more. He decided to run for one of the five seats on the Board of Supervisors in 1961. He was the first openly gay person to run for public office. Campaigning around the district, and on the radio. Speaking multiple languages made him popular amongst diverse communities.
“There were nine people running. My chances for winning were very very good… twelve hours before the filing was to close, the people who didn’t want me running went out and got almost thirty people to apply for the office. Now the field was large, and they made my position weak… But that didn’t stop me. I still campaigned. I came ninth in that whole field. I proved my point. From that day, at every election, the politicians in San Francisco have talked to us.”
José Sarria wears a suit and top hat. He stands in front of a crowd and a sign that reads, “Campaign Headquaters. José Sarria for Supervisor.” Image courtesy of The José Sarria Foundation
The Black Cat continued to fight, but the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board revoked the Black Cat’s liquor license on Halloween in 1963. A very important night for the LGBTQ+ community because it was the only time of year that a person could not be arrested for being in drag. Halloween was always the largest party of the year for the Black Cat. Stoumen decided to stay open and serve soft drinks for the bars last big event. Over two thousand people come to the event, dressed in all different costume and genderbending fashion. José finished his act that night as he always did, singing God Save Us Nelly Queens. He closed the show and the Black Cat’s legacy with, “United we stand. Divided, they will catch us one by one.”
José Sarria continued to be an important figure in the San Francisco LGBTQ+ community. The Tavern Guild, a group of LGBTQ+ establishments in San Francisco, wanted to honor Sarria at their Halloween ball in 1964. After that night José Sarria became: Empress José the First, the Widow Norton1. With his new status Sarria created a non-profit organization called the Imperial Court System, which is now one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ+ organizations worldwide. The Court System crowned regional empresses and queens and held balls to raise money for charitable causes. José Sarria passed away in 2013 and is buried at Woodlawn Memorial Park.
José Sarria utilized his platform at the Black Cat to advocate for and uplift his community. He was able to succeed in a military structure that was increasingly discriminatory against LGBTQ+ people. He saw this same structure lead to a loss in career and the closing of his beloved establishment. Despite the challenges he faced, he was able to create a legacy that inspired his community to uplift and love itself.
 Joshua Norton was a San Francisco merchant who lost his fortune during the Gold Rush. In 1859 Norton marched into a newspapers office in a feathered hat and blue military style coat, declaring himself “Joshua Norton the First, the Emperor of North America and Protector of Mexico.” The city of San Francisco embraced their “emperor” and he became a beloved public figure until his death in 1880. In 1965, José Sarria officially became the Emperor's loving “widow”.
Nan Alamilla Boyd. Wide-Open Town : A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley, Calif. ; London, University Of California Press, 2003.
Michael Robert Gorman. The Empress Is a Man : Stories from the Life of José́ Sarria. 1998. New York, Routledge, 2013.
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