S.F. May Name Street for Groundbreaker in Drag

Times Staff Writer

Jose Sarria wanted to run for local office, but he didn't own a proper suit -- just a closet full of feather boas, hand-me-down stiletto pumps and sequined blue-chiffon evening gowns.

The year was 1961, when police routinely harassed patrons in gay bars, even in what is now the gayest big city in America. With a borrowed suit and word-of-mouth campaign that featured high-drama hilarity and flair, the flamboyant drag performer was among the nation's first openly gay political candidates.

Sarria won 5,600 votes -- ranking ninth of 33 candidates -- in an unsuccessful run for the Board of Supervisors. His bid inspired successive generations of gay politicians in the city and suggested the considerable influence the gay voting bloc would one day wield.

Now, a gay San Francisco supervisor wants to honor the 82-year-old Sarria by naming a section of a street after the longtime gay rights champion and fundraiser, who also started the Imperial Court System, a social and philanthropy group regarded as the Gay Shriners. Sarria now lives in Cathedral City near Palm Springs.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote today on a proposal by Supervisor Bevan Dufty to designate one block of 16th Street as Jose Sarria Place. Dufty's measure, which is expected to pass, would make Sarria the first gay man here to have a street named after him.

Not even the late Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first gay supervisor who was assassinated in 1978, has his own street, although he has chalked up other honors. One block is named for Alice B. Toklas, the lesbian activist and longtime partner of writer Gertrude Stein.

"My own little block, that's nice -- it'll make my enemies jealous," Sarria said. "It's interesting they're doing this while I'm alive. They usually do such things after you die. Maybe somebody figures I haven't got much longer to live. I hope they're not pushing me out the door."

Activists say there's no better time to recognize Sarria. "The time to honor your heroes is when they're still alive, not at the funeral eulogy," said a female impersonator who goes by the name Donna Sachet.

Added Nicole Murray Ramirez, a San Diego drag activist: "Jose Sarria is our Rosa Parks. This one little man has had a far-reaching impact."

Dufty said the name change would cause little hassle because the block houses only a public library branch named after Milk. The supervisor hopes to create a museum at the library that would focus on San Francisco's gay, lesbian and transgender history and culture.

But to pass, the resolution must avoid one small roadblock: Two dozen neighbors signed a petition against the change. Renaming street blocks -- even ones without homes or businesses -- causes more trouble than it's worth, they say.

"Politicians don't rename the streets they live on," said resident Jimmy Buckley. "They always go to somebody's else's neighborhood."

Buckley, 70, insists his opposition isn't personal. "I voted for Jose when he ran for office," he told officials at a recent public hearing. "If you really want to honor Jose, find the money and do something special."

California has seen numerous fights over street name changes. In 1986, a revolt erupted when San Diego officials changed the city's Market Street in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A year later, citizens voted the old name back.

In 1993, Fresno officials voted to rename Kings Canyon Avenue to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, in honor of the farmworker advocate. Weeks later, the name was changed back after irate residents complained. Even ultra-liberal Berkeley has failed to pass a resolution to rename University Avenue in honor of Chavez.

After San Francisco renamed Army Street in honor of Chavez in 1995, residents waged an unsuccessful campaign to reverse the move. Several years later, many people criticized the renaming of one block of Polk Street outside City Hall for the late civil rights leader Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett. As a supervisor, Mayor Gavin Newsom pushed an unsuccessful measure to put all proposed name changes before voters.

But Supervisor Jake McGoldrick said Jose Sarria Place would add to the city's character: "Look at Paris and London -- with all those wonderful references to literary characters and real people who have inspired us."

Historians say Sarria played a lead role in inspiring gays here.

"He made a case for the possibility of gay politics," said Nan Alamilla Boyd, whose 2003 book "Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965" includes a chapter on Sarria. "His platform was simple: I'm very queer and I'm very queer-looking and I want you to accept me anyway."

Sarria began performing in drag in the late 1930s -- before enlisting for service in World War II -- and eventually became the city's most visible drag entertainer. Performing at a club called the Black Cat, he called attention to plainclothes cops who tried to infiltrate the bar.

Legendary newspaper columnist Herb Caen dubbed him the "Nightingale of Montgomery Street," a pioneer of gay political theater who led the fight against a corrupt police force that extorted payoffs from gay clubs, waged "cleanup" campaigns that jailed gay men for cruising city parks and harassed drag queens for cross-dressing.

Sarria encouraged Halloween cross-dressing celebrants to wear a button that said "I am a boy" so they could not be arrested for impersonating a woman. He also encouraged those charged to demand jury trials. With so many cases to hear, judges soon demanded better evidence from police and prosecutors, making such "intent to deceive" cases difficult.

He also founded the Imperial Court System, which by the 1970s had become the nation's second-largest gay and lesbian charity organization. Today there are 67 chapters in the U.S. and Canada.

But Sarria is remembered by most gays and lesbians for his political campaign, which he waged both in drag and the borrowed suit.

"I wanted to prove that a gay person had the right to run for public office, that we all had that right," he said.

At a meeting last week at City Hall, another drag queen spoke up on Sarria's behalf. Wearing a St. John red knit suit, red pumps and a red-and-gold Australian outback hat, Sachet said gay San Francisco owed Sarria for its ability today to be itself.

"Without Jose Sarria, I wouldn't be standing here today," Sachet deadpanned. "At least not dressed like this."

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