It was an “only in San Francisco” event on Friday, September 6, 2013.
By some accounts a thousand people packed Grace Cathedral. Then a long line of limousines and several busses took five hundred mourners, a marching band and honor guard to Woodlawn Cemetery to honor José Sarria. They lowered his ninety year old cancer ravaged body into a grave he had bought next to an eccentric man called Emperor Norton I. Jose had personally resurrected Norton for the annals’ of forgotten San Francisco history.
The group at the cemetery that day included huge, towering drag queens dressed in the most beautiful period black mourning gowns they could muster and black veils. Accompanied by “Emperors” and “royal family”, they represented “Imperial Courts” all across the United States, Canada and Mexico. To tourists and outsiders they looked outlandish but to those of us who knew them, they represented decades of tireless work and fund raising for hundreds of charities benefiting the LGBT community. There was little humor on display, although José would have wanted it. No one competed for attention. The day was his and everyone knew and respected that. He had planned it down to the smallest details, including the group singing “God Save Us Nelly Queens” before they lowered him into his grave.
José was called many things that day, but perhaps the most touching and accurate accolade was referring to him as the Rosa Parks of the LGBT equality movement. Disenfranchised like the rest of us back in the 1950’s and 60’s, he had the courage to say no and do something about it. While the rest of us hid in our closets, business suits, offices and from our families, Jose put on a dress, sang his heart out while waiting tables in a gay bar and demanded equality every chance he got. When that didn’t work, he joined with anyone who would listen and started forming organizations to help make things better for gay people in San Francisco, and everywhere else.
On that Friday, everyone at Grace Cathedral listened to the beautiful eulogies, and the rest of us read them as they came in from around the world. And in almost breathless sadness, we watched as José was transformed from the loving, talented, often brash and hilarious man he was, into an historical figure to be referenced only in the past-tense and our hearts sank as the loss became real.
He was my friend and I will miss him. My heart goes out to Tony Ross and everyone who loved him.