Local and visiting royalty from the International Court System were among the hundreds of mourners who filled Grace Cathedral on Friday for the elaborate state funeral for Jose Julio Sarria, aka Empress Jose I, the Widow Norton.
Always a fan of pomp and circumstance, Sarria left detailed instructions for his memorial, which were followed to the letter by dozens of drag queens in long black gowns with veils covering their crowns and faces.
Sarria, who died August 19 in Albuquerque at the age of 90, was a well-loved cocktail waiter and drag performer at the Black Cat Café in North Beach during the repressive 1950s. In 1961, he was the first openly gay person to run for political office in the US, garnering nearly 6,000 votes in his bid for a City supervisor seat.
“Jose Sarria changed the political landscape of San Francisco forever,” Sen. Mark Leno said at the funeral, conducted by Episcopal Bishop the Right Rev. Marc Handley Andrus. Several other elected officials paid their respects, including former SF Mayor Art Agnos and current and former District 8 supervisors Scott Wiener and Bevan Dufty.
Maurice Gerry — formerly known as Michelle, Czarina de Castro — friends with Sarria since 1956 revealed another side of Jose, recalling how he had once helped Gerry buy a car with a rubber check.
The cathedral service was followed by a long procession of limousines and hired buses to Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma. Having made his name fighting police persecution of gay people and cross-dressers, Sarria’s funeral cortege was led by a police escort.
Sarria, who styled himself as the widow of the 19th century local eccentric Emperor Joshua Norton, founded the first Imperial Court in San Francisco in 1965, which grew into the International Court System. Sarria bought the cemetery plot next to Norton’s who died in 1880 years ago and was buried there Friday.
Drag luminary Donna Sachet and San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros presided over a moving ceremony that included current and former monarchs placing white roses on Sarria’s coffin.
Following the graveside service, mourners repaired to the Lookout bar in the Castro for a long afternoon of merriment and remembrance.
All photos ©2013 by Liz Highleyman or Gerard Koskovich and used with permission