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Funeral for gay-rights pioneer José Julio Sarria is fit for a (drag) queen

SAN FRANCISCO -- The funeral for gay-rights pioneer José Julio Sarria was worthy of his official Imperial Court title, Empress Jose I, the Widow Norton, with mourners wearing black lace and long black dresses with trains.

The mourners gathered Friday at the grand Grace Cathedral, where the Right Rev. Mark Handley Andrus, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, presided over the funeral that had all the trappings of a state funeral. Imperial Court royalty, including San Diego's empress Nicole Murray-Ramirez, had a role in the program.

Openly gay state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) was one of the speakers, and he described Sarria as the Rosa Parks of the LGBT community. "He stood for justice. He said, 'There is nothing wrong with being gay, the crime is being caught,'" Leno told the mourners.

Sarria died on Aug. 19 at his home in Albuquerque, N.M. He was 90. Sarria was born on Dec. 22, 1922 in San Francisco, the son of Julio Sarria of San Francisco and Maria Delores Maldonado, who came from Colombia. He graduated from Commerce High School in San Francisco. He then enlisted in the Army during World War II, and was discharged in 1945 at the rank of Staff Sergeant.

After the war, Sarria became one of the most famous drag queens of the 1950s and 1960s, often dressing up as an opera diva at the inclusive Black Cat Bar and entertaining the patrons. In those days, it was illegal to be gay, and San Francisco police would frequently raid the Black Cat and other bars to hunt down homosexuals. He was arrested many times.

Sarria would be the founder of the Imperial Court system, and in 1965 he declared himself Empress Jose I, The Widow Norton after winning a drag queen competition. The Imperial Court would spread across North America, and would become noted for raising millions of dollars for charities.

Before Harvey Milk ever thought of running for office, Sarria made history in 1961 as the first openly gay political candidate in the U.S., but lost his race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, as expected in those times. Sarria placed 29th in a field of 33 candidates, a showing that would pave the way for future LGBT political candidates. Milk would be successful in getting elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977.

At Sarria's funeral, speakers noted the irony at how his world changed over the years.

"From the Black Cat to the Grace Cathedral. Now I've seen everything," Maurice Gerry, a City Councilmember in Liberty, N.Y. and a friend, told the mourners.

After the dignified funeral, Sarria was buried in Colma next to Joshua Abraham Norton, aka Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.