In 1961, José took his activism to the next level, becoming the first openly gay candidate in the world to seek public office. Relying
primarily on a word-of-mouth campaign, José ran for a position as one of San Francisco's powerful City Supervisors, the very same
political office which would be won by Harvey Milk 16 years later. And, although José didn't win, he stunned the city's political
hierarchy and further awakened San Francisco's gay community by garnering more than 5,600 votes finishing in the top ten of a field
of more than 32 candidates many of them seasoned political professionals. In fact, though it didn't happen until years later, many
political strategist and historians credit José's strong showing as being the major impetus for San Francisco changing City Supervisor
elections from city-wide to ward elections. This change allowed minority candidates to run and win representation of the city's
powerful governing board without which, it would have been nearly impossible for Harvey Milk to have won his own 1977 campaign.
Undeterred by his campaign loss, four years earlier, it was in 1965 that Sarria and several local gay bar owners organized the first "Drag Ball." When Sarria was named "Queen of the Ball,". "she", realizing she was "already a queen," apparently shouted "Why be a QUEEN when I can be an EMPRESS?" and the rest, as they say is history!
After declaring himself Empress of San Francisco, Jose decided to further enhance the title by drawing upon San Francisco's Emperor Norton legend. Norton was an eccentric 19th century San Francisco former miner and rice baron who, even after losing his entire fortune, continued to dressed imperially and proclaim himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Declaring himself Emperor Norton's heir in spirit if not by law, Jose declared himself "The Widow Norton" and actually began leading large annual congregations of drag queens to Norton’s grave in nearby Colma, CA. There, "The Empress" (Jose)
and the accompanying drag queens would pay their respects with flowers and other tributes to Sarria’s dearly departed "husband," a
tradition which San Francisco's local drag community continues to this day.
Expanding on this rich tapestry of history and tradition, the Drag 'Ball' eventually became an annual 'Coronation' of each year's newly
elected Empress and Emperor. But of course, Jose's community activist roots couldn't stop with just a frivolous excuse for a party (no
matter how great a party). So, instead, he developed bylaws and dedicated the group, which became know as the Imperial Court of
San Francisco, to raising funds to support gay and other local charities.
The International Imperial Court System (IICS), of which the Imperial Sovereign Court of Spokane (ISCS) is a proud member, is one of the oldest and largest gay organizations in the world. The non-profit IICS and its more than 70 satellite chapters scattered throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico, support numerous local, regional and national charities using funds raised from fancy-dress balls, drag shows and other community events hosted across North America.
Imperial Sovereign Court of Spokane
The advent of the 1950's and the McCarthy era, resulted in increased societal pressure to keep homosexuals closeted, silent and invisible.
Law enforcement agents would frequently launch raids on local gay bars and other establishments as well as devise underhanded
entrapment schemes to arrest and prosecute known and suspected homosexuals. At The Black Cat, in order to protest these practices and,
more practically, warn against the potential presence of law enforcement, José began changing the lyrics of his songs to warn against
potential threats and to boost the morale of San Francisco's gay community. At the time he was known most famously for his variation of
"God Save the Queen" which in José's talented hands became "God Save Us Nelly Queens" which was led by him each night as a sing-a-long
at bar closing time. Jose would even sometime take the crowd from the bar out into the streets to sing the final verse to men jailed just
the street following earlier police raids. It was also during this same period that José coined two of the most famous phrases in gay history,
"There's nothing wrong with being gay, the crime is getting caught" and "United we stand, divided they get us one by one."
By the earl '70s, under the continuing stewardship of "The Widow Norton" or "Mamma" as Jose had come to be called, the Court System had been franchised first Vancouver BC, then Portland, and subsequently to Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Everett, Vancouver and Spokane. That growth would continue into the 80s and 90s and beyond.
Today the International Imperial Court System, as it is now called, has more than 70 chapters spread throughout North America including
ones in the United States, Canada and Mexico. While Jose remains active in the organization attending numerous coronations and
keeping a watchful eye on his "children," he abdicated his crown in 2007 passing leadership of IICS to his is trusted protégé Empress
Nicole the Great who currently serves as the Executive Director and International Spokesperson for the Court.
While IICS scrupulously avoids partisan politics, the organization and it's various chapters raise tens of thousands of dollars annually to
support various charities and organization serving the LGBT community. Moreover, they provide an active and important voice on lesbian
and gay rights around the globe. For more information about International Affiliates, please go to www.ImpCourt.org.
The roots of the Imperial Sovereign Court System date all the way back to the 1940's as more and more discharged gay and lesbian World War II veterans began settling in San Francisco's Castro District and frequenting the Black Cat Bar on Montgomery Street. One of those WWII veterans, José Julio Sarria, entered gay history when he began to fill in periodically for his then boyfriend, Jimmy Moore, a waiter at The Black Cat. One night while José was serving drinks, the pianist began playing music from the opera Carmen. When José began to sing arias from the famous opera, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause and José's reputation as an entertainer and performer only grew from that night forward.