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    José Sarria’s Continuing Role in the Fight for LGBT Rights

    dana“Why be ashamed of who you are?” activist, singer and drag performer José Julio Sarria (1922-2013) once asked. Sarria, who died last year, exemplified gay pride even before the word “gay” was strongly associated with homosexuality. He was out and proud when LGBT individuals were habitually harassed and routinely arrested, somehow always maintaining his inherent grace and elegance, as well as his sharp, biting wit. He was also a catalyst for our community, telling patrons at San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar, where he performed: “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.”

    Three years before the Black Cat closed in February 1964, Sarria brazenly ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming one of the first openly gay candidates for U.S. public office. He received 5,600 votes, leading others to notice the emerging power of the LGBT voting bloc. Over four decades later, a street in San Francisco was named in his honor.

    A stroll down José Sarria Court, a section of 16th Street in the Castro, is a reminder that Sarria’s achievements aren’t just relegated to the history books. His is a living legacy. For example, the Imperial Court System, which he founded in 1965, continues to grow and thrive. This network of non-profit charitable organizations throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico has raised millions of dollars for various beneficiaries supporting causes such as those related to AIDS, breast cancer, domestic abuse and homelessness.

    dana2Entire volumes could be written about Sarria’s life and achievements, and we urge you to learn more about this remarkable man. We also ask that you help to keep his positive energy, goals and memory alive. Please consider joining us on Tuesday, August 19, for “Honoring Our Hero: Remembering José Julio Sarria” at the LGBT Community Center. The event, to the day, will mark the one-year anniversary of Sarria’s passing, and will hopefully be the first of many such remembrances to come.

    Empress Donna Sachet, Heir Apparent to Empress Nicole the Great, will serve as moderator and will be joined by a panel of Sarria’s friends as well as historians for a lively exploration of Sarria’s unforgettable role in the fight for LGBT rights. The event itself, organized by the groundbreaking non-profit Openhouse, is history making, given that it’s the first of its kind. We look forward to seeing many of you there.

    For now, we leave you with Sarria’s own words, shared in an interview with Scott Rice for the Seattle Gay Times in 2009. When asked what his legacy would be, Sarria responded, “I hope they remember me and that they remember me in a good light, remember that I wanted to help. They sometimes didn’t understand me. I did it because I wanted to help the other guy. Mother said, ‘What you do with the right hand comes back to you in the left hand.’ And you must like what you do. If you like what you do, they can’t supersede you.”

    When asked what advice he had for young queer folks, Sarria said, “For young people, the first thing to remember or live by is nothing is impossible; everything is possible. Two, be positive. Don’t be negative. Life is not the best thing, but you have to make believe it is. I never thought I’d live to see a black president, and for him to do what he did, he is positive and he’s instilling in people that everything is possible.”

    (As an aside, we can’t resist sharing Rice’s own thoughts about Sarria—then 86—after the interview. Rice wrote: “Sarria is flirty, charming, and, frankly, a little dirty. I think I have a crush on him.”)

    Honoring Our Hero: Remembering José Julio Sarria, Tuesday, August 19, from 6-7:30pm, LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market Street, SF. For tickets and additional information, please visit: