The Drag Queen Who Changed SF Politics

From boas to borrowed suits.

“I was normal as the next man,” Jose Sarria said, without even cracking a smile. This coming from the man who was once considered San Francisco’s most famous drag queen. “I did not believe I was different than anybody else.”

In the 1950s, Sarria was the cross-dressing star of the Black Cat Nightclub in San Francisco’s North Beach. He sang, he danced – he filled the joint. It was a time when the gay life wasn’t so gay -- police raids on gay nightclubs were common, and gay sex could land you behind bars. It ticked-off Sarria, who never met a barrier he didn’t want to smash.

So in 1961, he packed-up his boa, borrowed a suit and decided to run for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. “There was nothing in the books that said a gay person could not run,” said Sarria, now eighty-eight years old.

Maybe there was nothing on the books that said a gay man couldn’t run for office, but society wasn’t exactly rolling out a red carpet for him either, even in San Francisco. The Democrats didn’t want to back him – neither did the Republicans. Heck, he was having a hard time even collecting 25 signatures to get on the ballot.

“You go out and get 25 of your friends to sign their name where it says ‘homosexual,’” he said. “They wouldn’t do it.”

Sarria finally convinced the Democrats to at least let him use their name to at least get on the ballot. His said his threats to “out” a few of his friends helped him gather the signatures he needed. When the election rolled around, Sarria came in ninth with 5,600 votes. Despite the loss, the weight of those votes was enough to stir up San Francisco politics forever. “

Jose proved there’s a gay vote, so that was huge,” said Paul Boneberg, executive director of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society. “From that, people began to campaign for the gay vote.”

Historians with the historical society believe Sarria is the first openly gay candidate for public office. Sixteen years before Harvey Milk became California's first openly gay elected official, Sarria had illuminated the power of the gay vote. Afterward, candidates like Diane Feinstein would seek-out endorsements from gay organizations.

Bevan Dufty who is currently campaigning to be San Francisco’s first openly gay mayor, said Sarria did the heavy lifting during a difficult time.

“Here I am as a gay man running for mayor and I’ve received endorsements of every public safety union -- the police officers’ association,” said Dufty. “It’s very different than when Jose was running in the sixties.”

These days, Sarria, 89, moves carefully with a cane. But his voice booms with the stories(some not fit for print) of his life. In San Francisco’s GLBT museum, a new display features a poster from Sarria’s political campaign, an old speech, as well as a bejeweled tiara he wore in his days at the Black Cat. As he leaned into the display to get a closer look – the diamond in Sarria’s earlobe glinted with the outside sun.

“They thought I was crazy,” he said – and laughed.

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