José Sarria, a drag performer and gay rights advocate who many historians contend was the first openly gay person to campaign for public office in the United States when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961.
Mr. Sarria worked as a waiter and performed at the Black Cat Cafe, a gay bar in the North Beach section of San Francisco, in the 1950s and ’60s. His campy satires of operas like “Carmen,” performed in elaborate regalia and makeup, made him a recognizable face in the city’s gay neighborhoods and a de facto community leader.
Laws against sodomy were in place throughout the United States at the time. In California, bars serving homosexuals could legally be raided and their patrons arrested. Mr. Sarria helped found civic groups to fight discrimination against gay people. His frustration with the system led to his run for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, the legislative body for the city and county of San Francisco.
“I had a right to run for office,” Mr. Sarria told The Atlantic in 2011. “I was angry, and I did it to prove a point.” He borrowed a suit for campaign photos and ran under the watchword “Equality!” He came in ninth out of a field of more than 30 candidates for five spots on the board and received more than 5,000 votes.
“From that day on,” Mr. Sarria said, “there’s never been a politician in San Francisco, not even a dogcatcher, that did not go and talk to the gay community.”
José Julio Sarria was born on Dec. 12, 1922, in San Francisco. He enlisted in the Army during World War II and after the war stayed in Berlin, where he was active in theater. He returned to San Francisco in 1947 hoping to become a teacher but was arrested on morals charges that year in a public bathroom at the St. Francis Hotel. He was fined and, because of his arrest record, not permitted to teach, so he began working at the Black Cat.
Mr. Sarria helped found the League for Civil Education, a group dedicated to overturning laws that prohibited serving alcohol to gay people, in 1960; and the Society for Individual Rights, a broader gay advocacy and community group, in 1963. He worked at the Black Cat until it closed in 1963.
In 1965, Mr. Sarria proclaimed himself the first Empress of San Francisco and founded a gay rights organization called the Imperial Court de San Francisco (playing off a tradition of comically exaggerated royal titles among gay men). It became the International Court System, which now has 65 chapters (each of which elects its own empress and emperor) in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Mr. Sarria did not run for office again. He was an ardent supporter and friend of Harvey Milk, who was elected supervisor in 1977, becoming the first openly gay elected official in California more than a decade and a half after Mr. Sarria’s attempt.
Sarria reigned over the Courts for 43 years until 2007. During his reign, he and members of the Imperial Court appeared in the opening scenes of the film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). On May 25, 2006, the city of San Francisco named a portion of 16th Street in the Castro District Jose Sarria Court, and a metal plaque commemorating the event (with a picture of the Empress I) was embedded in the sidewalk.
“As I Remember It”: For over sixty years, dancer Carmen de Lavallade has performed worldwide in collaboration with legendary artists such as Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington. Still performing in her eighties, Ms. de Lavallade is currently touring an autobiographical show called “As I Remember It.” The production features Ms. de Lavallade performing with projections of her younger self as well as with films featuring some of her significant collaborators. Stories of her years in California dancing with Lester Horton, in New York with Alvin Ailey and her time spent as a member of the Yale Repertory Theatre frame the evening. In this Big Think interview, Ms. de Lavallade recounts the process that led to show’s development.