Jose Julio Sarria



José Julio Sarria (b. December 12, 1922 or December 12, 1923) is an American drag queen and political activist from San Francisco, California. Known for his years of performing at the historic Black Cat Bar in the 1950s and 1960s, Sarria entertained patrons with satirical versions of popular songs and operas while encouraging them to live their lives as openly as possible.

Sarria was born to Maria Dolores Maldonado and Julio Sarria. The couple did not marry and Julio took 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 Austria. 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. There he met waiter Jimmy Moore, the man 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 never 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.