American Masters

FULL EPISODE

Jose Sarria: Legendary Drag Queen and Queer Activist

A legend of the San Francisco drag scene. Out and Latino, Sarria dedicated his life to fight for queer rights and even ran as the country's first known openly gay candidate for public office. An international drag charity that he helped found continues his legacy with legendary drag galas to this day.

AIRED: July 27, 2021 | 0:05:52
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TRANSCRIPT

- José Julio Sarria was a legend

of the San Francisco drag scene.

Out and Latino,

Sarria dedicated his life to fight for queer rights

and even ran as the country's first known

openly gay candidate for public office.

But why did he take offense to being called a drag queen?

I'll explain.

- Oh my God, isn't that fantastic?

- [Peppermint] Hi, y'all I'm Peppermint,

New York City's delightful diva

and welcome to Masters of Drag

where we're telling you stories of American drag pioneers.

Before he took to the stage delighting audiences

and flabbergasting authorities

with his edgy musical reviews.

Sarria first served as a staff Sergeant in World War II.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941,

Sarria dropped out of college and volunteered to enlist,

but less than five feet tall and weighing just 90 pounds.

(Peppermint clears throat) I beg your pardon.

Sarria didn't actually meet

the military's physical requirements.

Sarria claims he skirted the rules

by taking his recruiter to lunch

and inviting him up to his hotel room.

(Peppermint laughs)

The next thing you know, Sarria was in.

Hey, if it works, it works.

Now, when Sarria returned to San Francisco after the war,

he used the G.I. Bill to go back to college.

He wanted to be a teacher.

Around this time, he also got a part-time job

as a singing cocktail waiter at the legendary Black Cat Cafe

to make ends meets.

And honey, he was known for wearing heels

and belting out operatic songs all while serving you drinks.

He was an absolute smash hit.

Around the early 1950s,

Sarria was arrested for solicitation

at a local gay cruising spot

that was very popular with all the boys,

if you know what I mean,

which instantly dashed his dreams of teaching.

Back then, being outed as gay could ruin a career.

So, he plunged himself deeper into the world of performance

and drag.

Good choice, henny.

Every Sunday at the Black Cat, his show soon became known

for modern day drag parodies of classic operas.

Now, take this footage of Sarria on stage in 1961.

♪ I have a nelly little hat to wear ♪

♪ On top of my noggin

♪ My gay old boo, he bought a hat for me ♪

♪ I got a lovely hat to use

♪ And now I'm happy, merry

At the end of each performance

he'd encourage the entire audience to link arms

and sing along as he belted out the lyrics,

"God save us, nelly Queens"

to the tune of "God Save the Queen".

He did it even though he knew the cops

were creeping around the bar that night ready to arrest him.

It was an act of defiance for the queer community.

In fact, his whole act with tinged with political activism.

This was at a time when it was still illegal to be gay

and police frequently raided and fined queer establishment.

He even encourages his drag queen hennies

to wear notes pinned to their dresses,

saying "I'm a boy" in protest of the impersonation laws

that the police were using as an excuse

to target LGBTQ people.

His most famous slogan enshrined forever on his tombstone

was "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one."

The worsening harassment of the queer community in the 1950s

only strengthened Sarria's activism.

In 1961, he decided to run

for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors,

becoming the first known openly gay political candidate

in American herstory.

And although he didn't win,

the bigger victory was the message he and his voters

sent to the political establishment,

that there was a whole gay community out there who voted

and politicians best pay attention.

By the end of that decade,

San Francisco's liberal politicians

were actively courting gay voters

and starting to take the community's issues seriously.

15 years after he lost that election,

Harvey Milk ran for a similar seat in San Francisco and won.

Remember how I told you that Sarria

didn't want to be called a queen?

It's because when he was crowned at a public drag ball,

he said he was an empress, not just a queen.

So, Absolute Empress I became his nom de plume,

along with Widow Norton Empress José I

and Nightingale of Montgomery Street.

Okay, girl.

It was around that same time that Sarria founded

the Imperial Court System, a charitable organization

that raises funds for the queer community,

mostly by throwing extravagant drag galas.

Today, decades after its founding,

the organization is known as The International Court System

and it remains one of the oldest

and largest LGBTQ+ charities in the world.

After his death at the age of 90,

the city passed a resolution supporting his induction

into the California Hall of Fame, saying,

"Sarria paved the way for many lesbian, gay, bisexual,

transgender, and queer candidates who followed to seek

and win elected office across San Francisco,

elsewhere in the United States and around the world."

As we're learning more and more about the drag performers

that shaped the movement today,

we're finding that these artists made contributions

to all parts of society, to music, art, and theater,

as well as politics and activism.

The herstory of drag is intertwined with civil

and human rights.

And José Sarria was not only an early champion

of those rights, but left a legacy

that continues to ripple around the world today.

Drag herstory is longer than most of us think,

and we are only just beginning.

(upbeat electronic music)

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