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.