He was born in 1922 in San Francisco and served in the U.S. Army in World War II, rising to the rank of staff sergeant before his discharge in 1945.
In the 1950s, he worked as a waiter and performer at a historic gay bar in San Francisco, the Black Cat Cafe, until it closed in the 1960s, according to online reports.
He also performed in drag, putting on one-person operas that he staged at the Black Cat and declaring himself “Empress Jose I, The Widow Norton” after winning a drag queen competition at the Tavern Guild’s Beaux Arts Ball, according to an obituary of Sarria on the website of The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
In 1961, he ran for the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco city and county’s legislative body, after becoming frustrated with discrimination against gay people; he came in ninth of at least 30 candidates, and has said that since then, San Francisco politicians have always made a point to address gay communities, according to reports.
Stuart Milk of the Harvey Milk Foundation said Sarria “showed us how to turn a night into a grand occasion and a grand occasion into a means of providing support,” according to the GLAAD obituary. “That support led so many who did not ‘fit in’ to actually proudly stand out, together, creating a local sense of community and an international network that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local and major charities.”
In the 1960s, Sarria founded the International Court System, a series of drag shows that were fundraising events for gay charities and later for people who were HIV-positive or had AIDS.
“When he became ‘The Empress,’ he started the system, based on the Russian and European court, to raise money for different AIDS organizations, or to get money for medications,” said Tony Ross of Los Ranchos. He met Sarria through the International Court System in San Francisco.
“He started in San Francisco, and that grew and grew and now there are over 65 in North America, in Mexico and Canada as well.”
Ross, along with his partner, Albuquerque Pride president Paul “PJ” James, connected with Sarria when they met him at such an event in San Francisco, and they invited him to live with them in their Los Ranchos home in 2011 when he grew ill.
“We took him to all of his doctors appointments, all of that stuff,” Ross said. “I would say he was a very intense individual who loved history, so whenever we could find on television movies about czars and czarinas, he was always so interested in any of those historical figures.”
When he got to Los Ranchos, Ross said, “he was basically retired. His hobby was sewing, so he did a fair amount of hand stitches,” he recalled. “He loved to sew and he did travel, when he was invited to different court functions around the country.”
He also spent his time getting some of his documents together, because organizations including the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in San Francisco have requested to archive them. “It’s being catalogued and organized,” said Ross. “We shipped over 2,000 pounds of paper.”
A memorial service will be held for Sarria on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Metropolitan Community Church, 1103 Texas NE.