José Sarria, the first empress of the International Imperial Court and the first openly gay man to run for public office in the United States, died at his home in Albuquerque, N.M at age 90. He leaves behind a legacy in the LGBT community that will be remembered through the non-profit organizations he’s founded and the influence he had in politics.
In 1961 Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors chair, while he did not win this public seat he paved the way for people such as Harvey Milk to later take office.
In interviews Sarria said he ran for public office because he was tired the way the government was being run and he wanted to create change.
“José lived his life openly with pride and dignity at the time when it was dangerous to do so, inspiring others to do the same,” said Sister Renee Zonce of the San Diego Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Sarria was often seen in full drag walking arm in arm with Milk through government buildings in San Francisco.
In the August 19, 2013 news release from San Diego’s Council President Todd Gloria, he emphasized the importance of Sarria’s run for office and what it meant for the LGBT community in politics.
“The fact that the sexual orientation of candidates is no longer considered a barrier to election in San Diego is due to the brave steps Mr. Sarria took for us all 50 years ago,” said Gloria.
Gloria expressed his gratitude for Sarria “paving the way” for those LGBT identified who have been able to serve in public office.
Sarria expanded his work through the International Imperial Court system, which he founded in 1965 and has become the second largest LGBT non-profit organization in the world.
“Despite having founded and nurtured the second largest LGBT organizations in the word, he never lost his humility,” wrote Witti Repartee; a drag queen, blogger and 2012 Empress of New York.
She met and socialized with Sarria several times before joining the court system and was mentored by him while she reigned.
Sarria took the name Empress I, The Widow Norton after “adopting” Joshua Norton; Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, who died in 1880 and is buried in San Francisco. And thus began the reign of the International Imperial Court.
Sarria’s view for the future lead him to help and nurture relationships with those younger than him who still have the ability to create a more equal society.
“He was willing to nurture [this] young kid, helping to build and ensure a new generation of leaders would be ready to step up when called,” wrote Witti Repartee speaking about her interactions with Sarria, “
Witti Repartee also talked about Sarria attending coronations in 2012 at age 89, “he was active, engaged, had more twinkle than an elf, and was full of good humor, dirty stories and memories to share”
Sarria will be buried adjacent to Emperor Norton I on September 9, 2013. But while his time has passed his legend and his works will live on …
Or as the 2012 Empress of the Imperial Court de San Diego, RubyEmpress Ajax, put it, “The Empress is dead … Long Live the Empress.”
- Pioneering Gay Activist Jose Sarria Dies At Age 89 (sfist.com)
- Into the streets San Franciscians! (loukief.wordpress.com)
- Her Royal Majesty, Empress 1 Jose Sarria (The Widow Norton) Moves On (imperialpalace4queens.wordpress.com)
- Community mourns José Sarria, aka Empress I José (metroweekly.com)