A 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!