Jose Sarria, gay rights pioneer, to be inducted into Calif. Hall of Fame

José Sarria, a San Francisco trailblazer who was the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States, will be inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, and the California Museum made the announcement Tuesday regarding the 16th class of pioneers in public service, sports, music, entertainment.

“We are thrilled to announce the newest class of inductees joining some of our state’s most revolutionary, innovative, and brightest in the California Hall of Fame,” Newsom said in a statement.

“The outstanding legacy of this group has and will continue to embody what it means to be a Californian. There is no doubt their legacies will continue to live on and inspire millions across our state for generations to come,” he said.

Jose Sarria

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who identifies as gay, said the recognition of Jose Sarria’s contributions to California and the LGBTQ community is “long overdue.”

“As the founder of the Imperial Court System, Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton worked endlessly to support and uplift LGBTQ people and to make San Francisco a better and more inclusive city,” Wiener said in a statement.

“As the first gay man in United States history to run for public office, he created space for people like me to run and hold office.”

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A World War II veteran and celebrated drag performer at the Black Cat Café from the mid-1950s until the establishment closed in 1964, Jose Sarria was one of San Francisco’s first militant activists for homosexual equality. 

Gay rights pioneer

At the height of the San Francisco Police Department’s raids on gay and lesbian bars in 1961, Jose Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

He became the first known openly gay candidate for elected office anywhere in the world — and launched the strategy of demanding legal reform on behalf of LGBTQ people via the ballot box.

Although he didn’t win, Sarria received 6,000 votes, demonstrating for the first time the existence of a gay voting bloc. He came in fifth among a field of 29 candidates.

“During the worst periods of LGBTQ persecution, Jose fought back against discriminatory treatment and advocated for the equal protection of LGBTQ people,” Wiener said.

“His courage is a reminder of the critical role that drag performers have played in the movement for LGBTQ rights, and of the power of living unapologetically as one’s authentic self. What better represents California’s values than that?”

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Sarria’s achievements

  • In 1961, Sarria cofounded the League for Civil Education to encourage queer participation in civic life, organize educational programs about homosexuality, and provide support for gay and lesbian victims of police persecution.
  • In 1962, he cofounded the Tavern Guild, where gay and lesbian bar owners and employees organized to fight back against raids by the San Francisco police. It was the earliest known homosexual business association.
  • In 1965, Sarria established the Imperial Court of San Francisco, an organization that sponsors drag events to raise funds for charities both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ. With chapters across the United States and in Canada and Mexico, the Imperial Court system remains active to this day and is a major LGBTQ philanthropic group. It’s one of the oldest and largest drag organizations in the world.

Sarria declared himself the Widow Norton, Empress I de San Francisco, stating that as empress, he was, of course, the wife of the noted 19th-century San Francisco character Emperor Norton I, who had died more than 40 years before Sarria was born.

Sarria died of adrenal cancer on Aug 19, 2013, at his home in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Previous gay, lesbian Calif. Hall of Fame inductees

Induction ceremony

This posthumous class will be inducted on Tuesday in a virtual ceremony – joining over 100 inspirational Californians previously inducted for embodying the state’s innovative spirit.

It will be livestreamed on the governor’s office account on X, formerly known as Twitter, and on the California Museum’s YouTube page

This year’s honorees

  • Carrie Fisher, actress and screenwriter
  • Maggie Gee, pilot and physicist
  • Etta James, singer
  • Vin Scully, LA Dodgers broadcaster
  • Shirley Temple Black, actress and public servant
  • Archie Williams, Olympic gold medalist and educator

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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