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Spotlight on José Julio Sarria

José Julio Sarria, aka The Grand Mere aka Absolute Empress I de San Francisco, aka the Widow Norton, was a Latino-American drag performer and political activist who left a lasting legacy.

Sarria frequented the Black Cat Cafe, a bohemian haven that became a center for the city’s LGBTQ+ community and began performing as a drag queen. His charisma and talent made him a star, and he soon became a beloved fixture at the Black Cat.

Sarria’s influence extended far beyond drag performance and into political activism. In 1961 Sarria became the first openly gay person to run for public office in the United States, running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While he did not win, this bold move helped to ignite the LGBTQ+ rights movement and shatter the idea that gay people couldn’t be involved in politics.

Later in 1965, frustrated by the exclusion of gay people from traditional charity organizations, Sarria also founded the Imperial Court System, an organization with chapters all over the world that provides a platform for drag performers to raise funds for charitable causes. The Imperial Court system is the oldest LGBTQ+ charitable organization in existence.

Jose Sarria passed away in 2013, and left us his inspiring legacy as a true icon of the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

See his iconic costume in our Gallery of California Art.

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Ruth Asawa, Untitled, 1974
Isamu Noguchi, Coffee Table, early 1950s
Hung Liu, Heroine Gu Yanxiu, 2012
Leo Valledor, See You Around, 1982
Carlos Villa, Untitled, 1969
Yun Gee, San Francisco Chinatown, 1927