Legendary Drag Queen José Julio Sarria Dead at 91

Sarria was one of the first openly gay candidates to run for public office, and he founded the International Court System.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

August 19 2013 6:08 PM ET

Legendary gay rights activist and founder of the Imperial Court System José Julio Sarria died this morning in his home in New Mexico, reports GLAAD. Sarria was 91. 

Sarria was a World War II veteran who after being discharged in 1945 became the best-known drag queen in San Francisco, according to GLAAD's retrospective. After winning first place at a drag competition in 1965, Sarria declared himself "Empress José I, The Widow Norton," launching what would become the International Court System of the United States, one of the longest-standing LGBT philanthropic endeavors in the country. Today, there are Imperial Court Chapters in 68 cities across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. 

But while Sarria was most famous for his drag performances and founding role in the International Court System, the out veteran also had a penchant for political activism. In 1961, Sarria helped form one of the first gay rights organizations in the country, the League for Civil Education, which was the first gay nonprofit registered in California. That same year, Sarria announced his candidacy for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, making him the first openly gay man to seek public office and, advocates say, raising visibility and paving the way for Harvey Milk to eventually get elected as a San Francisco supervisor in 1977. 

Milk's nephew, who today leads the Harvey Milk Foundation, spoke fondly of his late uncle's dear friend. 

"José Sarria, founder of the International Court System showed us how to turn a night into a grand occasion and a grand occasion into a means of providing support," said Stuart Milk in a statement today. "That support led so many who did not 'fit in' to actually proudly stand out, together, creating a local sense of community and an international network that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local and major charities. He paved the way for my uncle Harvey Milk to run for public office by being the first openly gay man to put his name on the 1961 ballot and was right there to support Harvey’s first campaign in 1973. José’s extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end. And the extraordinary good that he did lives on. For the International Court System he was a guardian and an inspiration. For anyone who felt like they were different he was a defender of our dreams. He taught us how to turn an idea into action, how to wear a tiara, and how to laugh, and ultimately he taught us how to lift up and nourish a marginalized community. We will forever keep José in our history books and in our hearts."

John A. Pérez, speaker of the California Assembly, noted that while Sarria was based in California, his influence was global. "José Sarria was a monumental figure in the LGBT community whose contributions to our movement cannot be overstated," said Pérez in a statement. "His trailblazing run for public office as an openly gay man laid the groundwork for LGBT Californians to run for public office proudly and openly. But José's refusal to be silenced or shamed back into the closet — in an era where LGBT people were routinely discriminated against — was the greatest contribution to our movement. José's courageous personal example of living life openly, with pride and dignity, gave so many others the courage and confidence they needed to do the same. José's death is a great loss for our community, and it's fitting that it drew to a close just days after an historic victory in the Supreme Court that could never have happened without brave souls like José Sarria leading the way for all of us."

Photo courtesy of Nate Gowdy with Seattle Gay News.

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