by Aleksa Manila -
Special to the SGN
On September 6, José Julio Sarria - Mama José as fondly referred to by her courtiers - was laid to rest next to her beloved, Joshua Norton, Emperor I of the United States and Protector of Mexico, at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, near San Francisco. Her tombstone is inscribed, United we stand; divided, they will catch us one by one.
Mama José was also known as Her Majesty Absolute Empress I of San Francisco and was the founder of the International Court System, one of the largest LGBTQ organizations spanning the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Tavern Guild, one of the early homophile organizations she founded, wanted to name her Queen of San Francisco at the 1964 Beaux Arts Ball, but she proclaimed, Im already a queen! Thus she became the first Empress - José I, The Widow Norton - a reference to San Franciscos celebrated and colorful citizen, Joshua Norton, in the 1800s. Mama José was equally illustrious herself if not more. And indeed she was more.
Seattle is home to one of the first Courts in the ICS - the Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle and The Olympic and Rainier Empire, which sponsors the Gay Seattle Pageant among other charitable events. Mama José would often visit Seattle during Coronation over Presidents Day Weekend and stay with Emperors Michael D and John D, reminiscing with the likes of Empress Scotty I and Empress Dominique Ste. Laurent.
José was the first openly Gay man ever to run for public office in US history when he ran for San Franciscos Board of Supervisors in 1961. Although he garnered 6,000 votes, he placed ninth of 34 candidates. There were five open seats at the time. Harvey Milk later won that seat in 1977.
It is no surprise that Mama Josés successor, Empress Nicole the Great de San Diego, Queen Mother of the Americas, Executive Director of the International Court Council, is a San Diego City Commissioner following Mama Josés political footsteps of the founder. Recently, California State Senator Mark Leno even named Empress Nicole as Mayor of Hillcrest.
True to her art, Mama José was also known as the Nightingale of Montgomery Street as the official singer at the Black Cat Café. She would sing live arias and convince the patrons to stand up and sing along to God Save Us Nellie Queens at the end of her shows.
PRAYERS AND FLOWERS
As soon as news of her funeral services was announced, I quickly made travel arrangements. As past Empress and José Honors recipient, I felt it an obligation to pay my respects in person. I have long been inspired by her political activism through drag. Hence, I have been involved as LGBT Commissioner with the City of Seattle while reigning as Miss Gay Seattle and have been heavily involved with causes like marriage equality, among many others.
On the day of the viewing, held at Halsted N. Gray - Carew and English, many courtiers and dignitaries flocked to honor Her Majesty. A beautiful room adjacent to the viewing room was transformed into a museum-like memorial. Crowns, sashes, and other regalia she wore were on mannequins and in showcases. Photographs with emperors, empresses, politicians, and civil rights activists alike lined the walls. One photograph in particular loaned by Empress Donna Sachet of San Francisco caught my eye as it did the first time I saw it in Donnas home years back - José dressed in Hello Dolly drag, prancing with Harvey Milk.
Emperors and Empresses from as far away as Hawaii, New York, San Diego, and Canada were represented by Empress Charmaine, Empress Robin Kradles, Empress Lala Too, and Emperor Martin Storm, respectively. Empress Galilea of San Francisco was assigned the task of organizing Mama Josés funeral services herself.
As I approached the coffin escorted by Emperor Michael D. of Seattle, past pews lined with dignitaries in black, an overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me. Here lay a man full of history, knowledge, and compassion who paved the way for many people to be out and proud. José was in regal male attire with military medal and rosary wrapped in his hands as gifted by Emperor Michael D. himself, and his Empress crown lay on top of the casket.
A FINAL ARIA
On the day of the funeral at Grace Cathedral, all Empresses and Emperors followed Mama Josés final wishes - Emperors in black formalwear with gloves, Empresses in black floor-length gowns, veils over crowns and faces, and gloves. In a sea of black, the cathedral ceiling was lined with rainbow-colored fabric amidst the morning light beaming through the glass windows. It was poetic.
Minutes before the service began, I was able to witness, with San Francisco Empresses Donna Sachet, Tiger Lily, and Anita Martini, Mama José brought in by her pallbearers, who included Emperor Terry Sidie of Sacramento, while photographer Daniel Nicoletta, a close friend of Harvey Milk and the official photographer for the Gus Van Sant film Milk, documented the episode.
Bishop Marc Handley Andrus of the Episcopal Diocese of California presided over the service while Mama Josés dear friends - Empress Panzi of New York, the Honorable State Senator Mark Leno of California, Joséph Castel, Emperor James Mangia of Hollywood, Maurice Gerry aka Czarina Michelle de Castro, and Empress Galilea of San Francisco - spoke about their personal stories, as she had requested. Each speaker was poignant and respectful, yet appropriately funny. It was as if Mama José was sitting among us, laughing along.
Reminiscent of Mama Josés aria days at the Black Cat, soprano Jennifer Paulino sang a beautiful rendition of Ave Maria, echoing through the cathedral as the service culminated.
Just before leaving the cathedral, I took a photograph of the front steps - the very steps José stood on and held a sign reading 50 pieces of silver is worth more than a soul in his younger activist years. I wanted to be there in that moment and be reminded that it was not that too long ago, Gay men like him stood up for our rights.
Being contained in the cathedral, I had a skewed perception of how large the contingent actually was until the motorcade began. I had a vantage point sitting in the fourth of 10 stretch limos with Empresses Bobby Drake and Ashley ODay of Tacoma, and five charter buses following Mama Josés hearse. Clearly, there were hundreds in attendance from this view.
Mama José used to say, Theres nothing wrong with being Gay - the crime is getting caught. She would sing arias to warn patrons that the police were out to handcuff anyone perceived to be Gay. Now, here were the police escorting her to her final resting place, barricading motorists along the freeway to ensure her entourage a safe journey.
At the cemetery, Empress Donna Sachet hosted a flamboyant and festive funeral equipped with a marching band and chorus singing to various happy tunes - just like Mama José would have wanted it - perfect.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!