1922 - 2013

Born in San Francisco on Dec. 12, 1922, José Sarria developed a fancy for wearing girl’s clothes at a young age. After high school he enlisted in the Army and fought in WWII. Returning to San Francisco in 1947, Sarria hoped to become a teacher, but his dream was dashed after he was arrested on morals charges in a public bathroom. Prohibited from teaching, Sarria began waiting tables and performing at the Black Cat Café where his repertoire included one-person operas, such as “Carmen.” Always the life of the party, at closing time, Sarria often asked patrons to join hands and sing “God Save Us Nelly Queens” to the tune of “God Save the Queen”. Because it was commonplace for police to raid gay bars during this era, Sarria – who was tired of being treated like a second class citizen – announced his candidacy for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 – making him the first known openly gay candidate to run for public office in the United States. Though he came in ninth out of over thirty candidates (for five available spots) the outcome marked the recognition of growing gay political clout over 15 years before Harvey Milk would win the same seat. Sarria helped found the League for Civil Education, an early non-profit gay rights organization dedicated to overturning laws that prohibited serving alcohol to gays. He also helped to establish the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), a gay advocacy and community building group. In 1965, Sarria proclaimed himself “Empress Jose I” – the Widow Norton, the first Empress of San Francisco. This signaled the founding the Imperial Court System, which today endures as an international network raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities and major initiatives worldwide. A crucial player in the development of modern LGBTQ activism, Jose Sarria is still revered for his refusal to be silenced or shamed. This out and proud gay icon died on August 12, 2013 of adrenal cancer in Albuquerque, N.M. He was 90 years old.


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity Latinx

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch Homophile Movement (1945-1969) Information Age (1970-present) Post-Stonewall Era (1974-1980) Stonewall Era (1969-1974) World War II (1939-1945)

Field(s) of Contribution






Social Justice

Commemorations & Honors

San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee's Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award (2005)

San Francisco Renamed Part of 16th Street Jose Sarria Court (2006)

Albuquerque Pride Granted Sarria its Lifetime Achievement Award (2012)

José Julio Sarria History Makers Award Created by the San Franciso Pride Board (2013)

José Sarria Foundation Created (2016)

San Francisco Rainbow Honor Walk Honoree (2018)

National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Monument Inductee (2019)


Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Victor Salvo
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell