Gay rights icon Jose Julio Sarria dies

Mon. August 26, 2013 10:39 AM by News Staff

Jose Julio Sarria - Dec. 12, 1922 - Aug. 26, 2013

José Sarria, a drag performer and gay rights advocate who many historians contend was the first openly gay person to campaign for public office in the United States when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, died on Aug. 26 at his home in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M.  He was 90.  Sarria is perhaps best known for his appearance in the film "Before Stonewall", leading a group of gay men singing "God Save Us Nelly Queens". What many don't know is that he was a out and outspoken political activist when one could be jailed simply for being gay.

In 1960 Sarria was among those who founded the first gay non-profit in the State of California, The League for Civil Education, which provided support for gay men caught in police stings. In 1963 he split from that group and formed S.I.R, The Society for Individual Rights. He encouraged the gay community to realize the power it had if it worked together. By 1968, SIR was the largest GLBT organization in the U.S. with more than1,000 active members, publishing a thriving magazine, and the base for political power that would later shape the politics of San Francisco. SIR lasted for 17 years, ceasing operations in 1980.

In 1961 Jose Sarria declared himself a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, running his campaign from the Black Cat Bar, where he worked as a waiter and performer. The day before the deadline to file for office, city officials realized that they had fewer applicants than open positions, which would have guaranteed Sarria a win. The city's political bosses kicked into gear and had a near-record 34 candidates on the ballot a day later. Even though Sarria lost that November, he garnered far more votes than most expected he would. It is recognized as the beginning of the gay community showing its political clout.

In 1995 Sarria was honored with the San Francisco LGBT Pride Committee's Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award.  In 2006 he was commemorated when the city of San Francisco renamed a section of 16th Street in the Castro as José Sarria Court. A plaque was placed 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 recognized Jose Sarria for his lifetime of achievements.

"I want to be remembered, not as the little Latin that sat on table tops and sang "God Save the Nelly Queens", I think I've done a little bit more in this world. I was the first; I was the first to organize a gay non-profit corporation in the state of California, I want to be remembered for the good things that I've done. I have achieved something."

Written by: Rick Karlin for