Into the streets San Franciscans!

Norton_BancroftImage       1983 Empress Norton (Jose Sarria)

The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle on the morning of January 9th, 1880 read: “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is dead”). In the article that followed they reported: “On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain.., Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and
Protector of Mexico, departed this life.”

In 1849, after receiving a forty-thousand dollar bequest from his father’s estate in England, Joshua Norton first appeared in San Francisco. He got involved in several successful real estate ventures, but when he bought into Peruvian rice at exactly the wrong moment, he lost everything he had made and his father had given him. Distraught, he vanished, surfacing in the city a few years later, but this time severely mentally unbalanced, anointing himself as the Emperor of the United States. Accepting San Franciscans quickly adopted him and his long list of eccentricities, following his antics daily in the newspapers. To survive, Norton issued currency in his own name, and oddly enough it was honored in many local businesses, including the finest restaurants and stores. For almost thirty-years he spent his days roaming the streets, examining the conditions of the city’s cable cars and sidewalks while wearing an elaborate array of military costumes. He seldom relinquished his tattered top hat.

On January the 8th, 1880, at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant Ave.), he collapsed and died on the street. Instead of a pauper’s funeral, members of San Francisco’s Pacific Club made sure he received a proper burial. That Sunday as many as thirty thousand San Franciscans lined two miles of city streets as his funeral passed. He was buried in the Masonic Cemetery in a grave that had been bought and paid for by the citizens of San Francisco.

In 1934, when the city needed space to grow, the voters made the decision to move all the graves in San Francisco to Colma, just outside the city limits. Locals insist that today, Colma has more residents underground than above it. The remains of Emperor Norton were moved and now rest peacefully in Colma’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The grave is marked by a stone inscribed “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”.

Joshua Norton had become a lost footnote in San Francisco history. In the 1940’s, José Sarria came along, heard his story and decided to adopt him.

After being discharged from the Army, José decided to stay in San Francisco. He began waiting tables at The Black Cat, becoming known for his campy performances of arias from the opera Carmen while he worked. He soon earned an affectionate reputation as “The Nightingale of Montgomery Street”. Near the end of every evening he stood up and encouraged people in the bar to be open and honest about their lives. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay; the crime is getting caught”. He would tell them. When the bar was ready to close, patrons would join him in a chorus of “God Save Us Nelly Queens” sung to the tune of the British national anthem. Occasionally he’d push the crowd outside for the last verse, serenading men in their jail cells across the street that had been picked up earlier in vice raids.

José Sarria wasn’t just a drag queen with a pretty face. He had been the target of vice arrests in both bars and public places, and it was his suggestion to gay men to start demanding jury trials in self defense. Soon the courts were overloaded, and judges began demanding that prosecutors have actual evidence against people before allowing the cases to go to trial.

Every Halloween, after midnight when the festivities of the day were officially over, police arrested drag queens under an old city ordinance making it illegal for men to dress in women’s clothing with ”intent to deceive”. Fed up, José went to attorney Melvin Belli, and the two of them found a way around the law by giving out handmade labels to the drag queens in the shape of a black cat’s head. They read “I am a boy”. After that, when stopped, men in dresses would show the label, proving they were not attempting to deceive. This put an end to police raids on Halloween.

Working with others, José Sarria helped start the League for Civil Education (LCE) in the early 1960’s. The organization gave educational programs on homosexuality and offered help to men who were being persecuted for being gay after being snared in police raids. He ran unsuccessfully for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 for the same seat that Harvey Milk won sixteen years later. His résumé of work on behalf of the gay community in San Francisco is astounding. He was instrumental in starting many organizations to benefit gay people, including SIR, the Society for Individual Rights, and The Tavern Guild which initially was a group of bar owners who hired attorneys to post bail for their patrons when they were arrested in bar raids. He was also instrumental in establishing the Imperial Court of San Francisco, a system that today has chapters in cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico, raising millions of dollars for charity.

I watched the people I had naívely held in distain before coming to California and grew to respect them. It was the drag queens who proved to be the bravest, most fearless fighters for gay rights. While masculine gay men wearing business suits cowered in their closets, the boys in dresses and wigs were out in force, defending our rights. They adopted their alter egos and campy names not only because they were fun; they did it to give themselves a tiny measure of anonymity to protect their livelihoods.

Three years before the Stonewall Riots in New York City, it was a group of San Francisco drag queens who, late one night in August of 1966, had finally had enough of being harassed by the police. They fought back in Compton’s Cafeteria on Taylor and Turk in the Tenderloin. They decided it was time to start fighting, not just for gay rights, but for the most basic of human rights and dignity that we were promised under the Constitution but were being denied. Along with their Stonewall counterparts in New York, they began the long walk down a road that eventually led to the White House in 2012, and convinced Barack Obama to be the first president in history to demand and obtain human rights for all LGBT people in America.

José Sarria was the first in a long line of characters, both men and women, in The Imperial Court of San Francisco.  At 7:02 AM in the morning of August 19th, 2013, Jose died.   He had purchased the plot next to Emperor Norton in Colma’s Woodlawn Cemetery. He will reign in perpetuity as “Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton”, and no doubt future generations of gay San Franciscans will continue their annual pilgrimages to the graves and remember both him and the Emperor Norton.

If you are a San Franciscian and believe in human rights, you owe it to him to stop what you are doing long enough to line the streets of the city as his funeral passes by.   He was a fighter for everyone who believes in their rights under the Constitution and Bill of Rights.    … Into the streets, San Franciscans, a very good man is passing by for the last time.

Goodbye my friend

Goodbye my friend

This morning at 7:02 AM a San Francisco legend and treasure… and my friend, Jose’ Sarria passed away quietly at his home. He was 90 years old. I felt like someone punched me in the solar-plexus when I got the news. Perhaps because I’ve been living with Jose’ in my mind these past couple years while working on Let No Stranger Wait Outside Your Door. Whenever I had a question or wanted to make sure my facts were straight, I’d call him if I knew he was having a good day. He was always there for me, like he was for everyone who lived in San Francisco for so many years. At the end of his life, Jose’ lived in a little cottage behind his friend Tony’s house in Albuquerque. When he began to get really sick Tony was always there for him. There aren’t enough different ways to say thank you to him for taking charge and loving a dying man like he did.

On the Sunday after January the 8th, 1880, when Emperor Norton I collapsed and died at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant Ave.), as many as thirty thousand San Franciscans lined two miles of city streets as his funeral passed. A few years back, Jose’ bought the plot next to Norton’s and had a headstone put on it. It is my sincerest of hopes that by some miracle, the good citizens of San Francisco will once again line the streets, beat the drums and come to say goodbye to Jose’ Sarria. If you are gay, you owe it to him. He was the first one to stand up and fight for your rights.

God bless you, Jose’ and rest in peace.

IMPACT Magazine review


Today we received a wonderful surprise.  Chris Rayan at IMPACT Magazine let us know that he has reviewed “Let No Stranger Wait Outside Your Door”….  And what a review!  I am so proud and honored that this fine publication would consider including the book in their magazine.


Here is a direct link to the entire interview:

A Gift from Conor Walton

A Gift from Conor Walton

Allegory of Widsom
by Conor Walton
oil on linen, 36 x 54 inches, 2011
private collection

This week the universe led me to Conor Walton. He is an incredible artist who lives in Dublin and has shown his work around the world. I garnered the courage to ask him if I might use two of his paintings in the book I’m working on called “The Awful Grace of God” and he was kind enough to oblige.  I hope you’ll take a moment and visit his website and paintings.  While you are there, treat yourself to some of his Essays.


The Key
by Conor Walton
oil on linen, 50 x 45 cm
private collection

Letting Go

BuddhaHumm… ‘Gracefully letting go of things not meant for us’ is not always an easy task.  Whether it’s an investment that didn’t work out, or a child you loved and lost, or one who has decided they don’t love you and are willing to do everything they can to hurt you, letting go is what we must do.  It’s something we don’t do for the benefit of others, but for ourselves.   It is not selfish for foolish, it’s sanity.  Yesterday is past and in order to move forward we need to protect today and tomorrow by keeping our hearts full of love, our spirits high, staying creative and busy and living in the moment.  Of course the other option is to wallow in our loss…  Not really a smart choice is it?

The Awful Grace of God


It was 1945.Print

My parents, having struggled through the great depression a few years earlier, knew the art of doing without.  My father bounced from place to place looking for enough work to buy food to feed his children, and my  mother lived in hope of maybe having enough left over to keep her growing kids’ feet in shoes presentable enough to wear to school.

I was born a typical American Christian baby.  My parents’ daily lives were spent in abject fear and terror, threatened in no uncertain terms to get me baptized before I choked on my Gerber’s applesauce and rode the devil’s express to hell and eternal damnation.

“But he is a loving God.  Don’t question why bad things happen to unbaptized babies…Sorry, but they are going to hell if they don’t belong to the church.”

I was born into a “duck and cover” world of mushroom clouds.  Where our dad wore a Civil Defense armband and walked around the neighborhood on random occasions, ready to help people find shelter from “the bomb”.  Each of us wore a chain around our neck with a plastic tag with our blood type printed on it so if we were vaporized while we hid under our school desks they would know how to fix us.

It was a place where fragile looking tiny little men with their foreheads wrapped in bandanas made from rising sun flags flew their propeller airplanes into big war ships, and a strange little man with a curious moustache shot himself in the head in his underground cement apartment… It was where newsreel footage of rotting corpses stacked like cords of firewood and mountains of ashes that once were 6 million people played to horrified audiences on “dish night” in movie theaters.  Patrons left carrying the latest piece of their new dinnerware under their arms while they discussed the holocaust and wondered if the theater might give out cups and saucers the next week.

Robert Tew once wrote: “Sometimes what you fear the most to do is the very thing that will set you free.”  That’s what this book is all about… killing off a few more old demons and setting myself free.  While I’m at it, I’ll share some fun bits and pieces of my life that will hopefully give you a few good chuckles and just maybe make you stop and think about what’s really important.

We live in a world of contradictions.  Life is nothing like what any of us expected.  Like each generation before us, we find ourselves longing for the simpler, more personal, slower times of our youth all the while walking down the street with machines in our pockets capable of giving us answers for anything we might want to know while connecting us one-on-one with people around the globe.

The amount of information on the internet increases exponentially in the blink of an eye.  Those dusty, outdated volumes of the Encyclopedia of Britannia and Book of Knowledge that our parents struggled to buy and keep current so we could use them to write our term papers have been relegated as doorstops or for pressing flowers.  At last, access to knowledge, good, accurate and plain spoken truth, finally has the ability to set anyone who seeks it, free.  The only price is wading through all the untruths, lies and misinformation that any crackpot would have you believe to support his cause.

The power of the few to control the masses gets smaller each passing week and the powerful are not pleased.  They’re busy trying to find ways to keep us where they want us.  But like black people, gay men and lesbian women, the rest of the world will not be retreating into their closets to be stifled by ignorance ever again.

The young boy born the year Mister Truman dropped his atom bomb on those “Slanty Eyed Bastards” has been knocked around, threatened, bruised and disillusioned.  But as it turned out he was born a seeker, and when things just didn’t add up, he went after the answers with voracity of purpose and a sense of humor.

Now I have a story to tell you…