Sarria was born to Julio Sarria and Maria Dolores Maldonado. His parents did not marry and his father showed no interest in his son's life. Maria initially raised José on her own, but when this became too difficult she placed him with another couple. Both they and his mother indulged his early interest in wearing girl's clothing. Sarria showed an affinity for languages, which led to his first serious romance with another man. Sarria tutored Paul Kolish, an Austrian baron who had fled from the Nazis. Sarria and Kolish fell in love, and their relationship endured until Kolish and his son were killed in a car accident in 1947.
Sarria served in the United States Army during World War II. Following his discharge, he studied to become a teacher and frequented the Black Cat. He met waiter Jimmy Moore, whom Sarria describes as "the love of [his] life". Sarria was hired as a cocktail waiter. Following a conviction on a morals charge, Sarria, realizing he could not now become a certified teacher, began performing in drag. He appeared regularly at the Black Cat. An early LGBT activist, Sarria co-founded several homophile organizations, including the League for Civil Education, the Tavern Guild and the Society for Individual Rights. Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. In 1964 Sarria declared himself "Empress José I, The Widow Norton" and founded the Imperial Court System, which grew to become an international association of charitable organizations.
Following the closure of the Black Cat in 1964, Sarria went to work with restaurateur Pierre Parker. The pair operated French restaurants at World's Fairs. While at the 1964 New York World's Fair, Sarria learned that Jimmy Moore had committed suicide. Sarria worked at several more Fairs before retiring in 1974. After living with Parker in Phoenix, Arizona for several years, Sarria returned to San Francisco. He continued to reign over the Courts for 43 years, before abdicating in 2007. For his lifetime of activism, the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in Sarria's honor.
Sarria and members of the Imperial Court appeared along with other notable drag queens in the 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. They played the judges of the "Drag Queen of the Year Contest" that opened the film.
In 2005, Sarria found himself at the center of a legal controversy over his role on the jury in the 1991 murder trial of Clifford Bolden. Bolden had been sentenced to death in 1991 for the 1986 murder of Henry Michael Pederson, whom Bolden allegedly picked up in a bar in San Francisco's Castro district. Bolden's attorneys claimed that Sarria, who was not on the jury that convicted Bolden but was seated as an alternate for the penalty phase, had known Bolden's lover, Pederson and another of the jurors. They alleged that he had concealed this knowledge in order to remain on the jury and push for a death sentence. Sarria acknowledged having spoken occasionally with the other juror but denied the rest of the allegations. Sarria was cleared of wrongdoing in February 2008.
Sarria was honored in 2005 with the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee's Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award. On May 25, 2006, Sarria's lifetime of activism was commemorated when the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro to José Sarria Court. A plaque outlining Sarria's accomplishments is embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, which is located at 1 José Sarria Court. In 2009, the California State Assembly honored Sarria during an official celebration of LGBT Pride Month on June 21st.
Sarria reigned over the Imperial Court System until February 17, 2007, abdicating the throne in favor of his first heir apparent, Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who assumed the title Empress Nicole the Great, Queen Mother of the Americas. Sarria died of adrenal cancer at the age of 89 or 90 on August 19, 2013, at his home in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.
José Sarria, 1999, by Robert Giard (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1124041)
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digital
The Empress Is a Man: Stories from the Life of José Sarria by Michael R Gorman (Author)
Paperback: 278 pages
Publisher: Routledge (April 22, 1998)
Amazon: The Empress Is a Man: Stories from the Life of José Sarria
You may be familiar with the tremendous life achievements of José Sarria, an integral player in the gay rights movement, but never before have you heard the intimate details of his incredible life as they are portrayed here. In The Empress Is a Man: Stories from the Life of José Sarria (winner of the Lammy Award in the transgender category), Michael Gorman exposes Sarria’s life in a frank manner and with a unique storytelling ability that simultaneously causes amusement and sadness. Sarria’s amazing life story tells of his perserverance to advance the cause of equality for gay citizens.
At a time when gays were arrested, institutionalized, and castrated, Sarria did not try to hide his beliefs and convictions. Sarria was ahead of his time, becoming a significant figure in gay history and culture. You’ll find The Empress Is a Man fascinating as you read about the life of this truly courageous, outrageous, and remarkable man. Some of Sarria’s experiences and achievements you’ll read about include:
being the first openly gay male to run for political office
being one of America’s most important female impersonators
entertaining throughout the world, live and on film
postitively affecting the gay community
founding an extremely successful charity fundraising organization
being featured in a PBS documentary
serving in the Army in The Battle of the Bulge in WWII
Until recently, gay and lesbian stories were published in very limited venues and often at great personal risk, forcing knowledge of this history to be passed down orally. The Empress Is a Man reflects this tradition by telling much of the story in Sarria’s own words. Adding to the enjoyment and originality of this book is a structure similar to the dramatic style of a play or novel. Each section ends with an exciting climax, although the book is chronological in order. The Empress Is a Man is an untraditional book about an untraditional man.
More Particular Voices at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Particular Voices
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