José Julio Sarria, LGBT Trailblazer And Founder Of International Court System, Dead At 91

SarriaQueenMother_1A true trailblazer has passed away. José Julio Sarria, founder of the International Court System and the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in North America, has died at his home in New Mexico at age 91. He had battled cancer for the past several months.

Sarria was a World War II veteran and as a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, he was the very first openly gay candidate to run for public office in North America at a time when being homosexual was illegal.

After he enlisted in the US Army during World War II, he had risen to the rank of Staff Sergeant prior to his discharge in 1945. Following his return to San Francisco, he became one of the city’s most popular drag performers. He was famed for performing one-person operas at the historic Black Cat Bar in North Beach during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1965 Sarria bestowed upon himself the title “Empress Jose I, The Widow Norton” after he won a drag queen competition at the Tavern Guild’s “Beaux Arts Ball.”

The first Court Chapter of the International Court System was soon established and it would continue on as a significant charitable organization. There are currently associated chapters in over 68 cities throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

San Francisco’s LGBT Pride Celebration Committee honored Sarria with its Lifetime Achievement grand marshal title in 2005. The following year the city renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro neighborhood Jose Sarria Court.

GLAAD compiled many testimonials from people who noted Sarria’s impact on the struggle for LGBT equality.

“He paved the way for my uncle, Harvey Milk, to run for public office by being the first openly gay man to put his name on the 1961 ballot and was right there to support Harvey’s first campaign in 1973,” Stuart Milk, who is also gay, said in a statement.

John A. Pérez, Speak of the California Assembly, stated that Sarria’s influence was global. “José’s refusal to be silenced or shamed back into the closet–in an era where LGBT People were routinely discriminated against — was the greatest contribution to our movement,” Pérez said. “José’s courageous personal example of living life openly, with pride and dignity, gave so many others the courage and confidence they needed to do the same.

Long live the Queen!

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  • Kangol

    RIP to a brave pioneer!

  • kurt_t

    He features prominently in Randy Schilts’s book about Harvey Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street. Really hard to overstate his significance to the gay rights movement, or his courage. He was out there protesting and getting locked up when it was illegal to serve a drink to a homosexual in San Francisco.

    And I don’t think José would mind it if I offered up this trivium in his honor: His grave is directly in front (so vaguely northeast, I believe) of Emperor Norton’s final resting place in Colma’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The tombstone has been there for years apparently. (José, for as long as anyone in San Francisco can remember, styled himself “The Widow Norton.”) How José managed to score that spot, I don’t know, but I suppose José had powers that we lesser mortals will never understand.

    So if you want to pay your respects at the grave, just go to Woodlawn (It’s right near the Colma BART station.), and at the front office they’ll give you a map to Emperor Norton’s grave. Naturally, they’ll give you a map to José’s grave too, but it’s probably easier if you ask for Emperor Norton’s grave. They already have his grave preprinted on the map.

  • CaptainFabulous

    RIP Mama…

    Isn’t it the Imperial Court System? At least it was when I was a member in the late 90s. Did they change their name?

  • Scribe38

    R.I.P thanks for your hard work.

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