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    Imperial Court – Living Legacy of Absolute Empress

    1a-DONNA-MARLENA-High Tea 

    The Bay Times joins with many this week who are pausing to remember José Julio Sarria, Absolute Empress I, The Widow Norton, storied founder of the international Imperial Court System who died on August 19.

    His life was joyous and his accomplishments were many. In Sarria’s memory, our front page presents Absolute Empress XXV Marlena and Absolute Empress XXX & Heir Apparent Donna Sachet as they appeared at the Empresses’ High Tea honoring Sarria and held in the Castro earlier this year.

    Donna Sachet, Absolute Empress XXX, Remembers Absolute Empress I, José Julio Sarria:

    Editor’s Note: José Julio Sarria (December 12, 1922-August 19, 2013), founder of the Imperial Court System and a beloved member of our community, will be laid to rest tomorrow. The Widow Norton, aka Sarria, will be buried next to celebrated 19th century San Franciscan, Emperor Norton, in Colma. Donna Sachet, Absolute Empress XXX, pays tribute here to Sarria.

    The world has lost a unique individual, but not without our feeling the powerful effects of his long life far and wide.

    Born in 1922, in humble surroundings to an unwed mother, José showed no immediate promise of his life to come, other than an early interest in, and affinity for, languages and theatricality. Childhood lessons in ballet, tap dancing, and singing, combined with parental indulgence of his enjoyment in wearing girls’ clothing, may have laid the groundwork for later performances.

    Although jostled from home to home and school to school, José nevertheless was an avid student whose facility with languages led him to tutoring and to his first romantic relationship with a man, an Austrian baron, displaced by Nazi Germany. Outraged by Pearl Harbor and despite height restrictions, José found his way into the military and honorably served in the US Army until 1945. Back in the United States, the baron was killed in a tragic accident, ending José’s first true romance. As was often the case in those days, specific provisions by the baron for José were rejected, leaving José out of the inheritance.

    After the war, José entered college with an eye on teaching as a career, but at the same time began frequenting a bohemian club in North Beach called The Black Cat. When he was arrested for solicitation, a charge he denied, but for which he was convicted and fined, his dream of teaching was dashed by preponderant prejudices of the day. The Black Cat became his home and his livelihood, where he used his training to sing and dance, often in female costume, to become the “Nightingale of Montgomery Street” to many raucous patrons.

    Having suffered at the hands of a corrupt justice system, José gradually became a stalwart defender of Gay customers and friends who were routinely rounded up by the police with trumped up charges. His anthem became “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” sung to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” and his mantra was “United we stand; divided they catch us one by one.” To counteract police arrests under the law against wearing clothing of the opposite sex with the intent to deceive, José distributed to drag queens pieces of paper with the words “I am a man” written plainly on them. No intent to deceive meant no basis for arrest!

    Popular support and political savvy led José to enter the race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, the first run for public office ever by an openly Gay person in the United States. Wearing a borrowed suit for appearances, but never backing down from his bold opposition to unfair persecution of homosexuals, he surprisingly garnered 6000 votes citywide, finally waking the political establishment up to the legitimate voice of a beaten-down minority. Shortly thereafter, he joined bar owners and employees in forming the Tavern Guild, designed to protect Gay businesses and patrons. He was also instrumental in the formation of the League for Civil Education and Society for Individual Rights, ground-breaking early organizations dedicated to ensuring civil rights for homosexuals.

    In 1964, surrounded by admirers and still clinging to his theatrical roots, José turned down the offered title of Queen at the annual Beaux Arts Ball and declared himself Empress of San Francisco, the Widow of Emperor Joshua Norton, the historical 19th century eccentric figure, long celebrated by the City. And so was born the Imperial Court of San Francisco, quickly duplicated in various cities and eventually expanding to the International Court System, now with nearly 70 chapters across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. José took great pride in this organization, traveling to many cities to encourage their members, always staying true to his convictions, always ready to share a story, and always anxious to hear of new leaders, fresh ideas, and battles won. In order to ensure the vibrant continuation of the International Court System, José appointed as its leader Nicole Murray-Ramirez, Empress of San Diego and now Queen Mother of the Americas. The José Honors Award is presented biannually to distinguished members of this organization, keeping José’s name and legacy alive.

    Back in San Francisco, José supported Harvey Milk’s political aspirations and took great pride in Milk’s election to the Board of Supervisors in 1977.  José was named Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal of the 2005 Pride Parade and a block of 16th Street was christened for him in 2006.

    He recently donated his extensive collection of papers and memorabilia to the GLBT Historical Society. He relocated several times, eventually residing with dear friends in a charming cottage in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    Remember this towering pioneer of the Gay rights movement. Go to the plaque in the sidewalk in front of the Harvey Milk Branch Library at 1 José Sarria Court. Leave some flowers or mementos at the corner of 18th and Castro where a large photo of him waves in the breeze. Attend his Imperial State Funeral at Grace Cathedral, followed by a motorcade to Colma, where he will be interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, right beside his beloved Emperor Joshua Norton. And when you vote for a Gay candidate, legally marry your partner, attend a fundraiser, contribute to a charitable cause, don some fantastic drag outfit, walk through the door of a Gay bar, or simply take the hand of your partner as you stroll down the street, please remember why you are able to do so with pride… because of the life, the work, and the passion of José Sarria.