Thursday, October 6, 2016


By Joe Castel
Adelante Magazine
This past June, the empresses and emperors of the Imperial Courts of Los Angeles/Hollywood and Orange County came together to recreate a historic scene for the documentary, Nelly Queen, the Life and Times of Jose Sarria. It was one of the hottest days of the year, but their royal eyeliner never ran, even under the bright lights, as these royal peacocks paraded their vintage couture down the makeshift runway in honor of their founder, Jose Sarria, Empress Jose I.
The reenactment date was October 31, 1963. The scene: the closing night of the San Franciscan Black Cat Café, the Stonewall Inn of the West Coast. The Cat’s s star female impersonator, Jose Julio Sarria, encouraged his fellow revelers to defy the law and wear drag that night. Despite it being Halloween, drag was still against the law and the San Francisco police chief warned the Black Cat staff that anyone caught in drag one minute after midnight on Halloween would be arrested.
Who was Jose Sarria?
Jose was an entertainer activist who exemplified gay pride before the phrase was even coined. From 1952 to 1963, the legendary diva performed opera parodies at the Black Cat Café, a bohemian hangout for local artists, beatniks and gays in a section of North Beach. From a stage made of four tables shoved together, Jose not only entertained his audiences with gay operatic story-lines, he galvanized a disenfranchised community with such slogans as “Gay is Good!” and “United we stand, divided they’ll catch us one by one.”
Jose inspired his patrons to stand up for their rights by teaching them how to circumvent laws that deprived them of their basic rights. Something as innocent as buying another male patron a drink could buy you time behind bars for “soliciting sex.” Whenever the vice squad entered the café to entrap unwitting patrons, Jose exposed them by having the audience stand up and sing, “God, Save Us Nelly Queens,” a takeoff on Britain’s national anthem.
“You got up and put your hand over your heart and sang God save us Nelly Queens!” recalled Robbie Robinson, a former Black Cat patron. As the empowered patrons proudly sang, the humiliated vice-officers retreated from the café. “It’s so hard to explain the feeling. It was a wonderful time. And he saved us I think from a lot. Because he made us human.”
In 1949, the State Equalization Board revoked the Cat’s liquor license on the basis that it catered to a homosexual clientele. The Cat’s owner, Sol Stoumen, a straight Jewish family man, believed his customers had the right to congregate. He hired attorney Morris Lowenthal, who took the State Equalization Board all the way to the State Supreme Court (Stoumen vs Riley). In 1951, Stoumen won back his liquor license on the basis that gays had the constitutional right to assemble. It was a landmark decision that has never been overturned, and the reason the Castro and West Hollywood can exist today.
When city officials made it their campaign platform to shut down all the gay bars in 1961, the 38 year-old World War II veteran threw caution to the wind and his sequined hat into the political ring and ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to run for public office in the United States. Sarria lost the election, but garnered nearly 6,000 votes, proving for the first time in American politics that the LGTBQ community had a voting bloc—11 years before Harvey Milk!
Sarria’s run for supervisor shook San Francisco up so much, it prompted city officials to join forces with the police department and the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board to shut down the Cat for good on trumped up moral charges.
On the morning of Halloween 1963, ABC agents confiscated the Cat’s liquor license and the SFPD threatened to arrest anyone caught in drag after midnight. But Stoumen and his star employee remained defiant. “We will be open,” announced the owner, acquiescing to the revocation of his license by selling soft drinks and juices.
Sarria came up with a scheme to circumvent the anti-drag ordinance. “It was against the law to cross dress with the intent to deceive,” recalled Sarria. “If you identify yourself, you’re not deceiving. So I came up with the idea that everyone should wear a little badge that said, ‘I’m a boy,’ so when they would try and arrest you, you say, ‘No, no, no, sweetheart, I am a boy.’ Consequently, you’re not deceiving, so they can’t arrest you.”
The diva’s ploy worked and the queens partied until dawn without harassment from the cops. Today wearing this tag might appear as an admission of defeat, but one has to remember the historical context of those oppressive times. It was seven years before Stonewall. Gays and lesbians could be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and even institutionalized.
The donning of ‘I’m a Boy’ cat tags, however, did prove to be a challenge for some of the extras during the reenactment, but they also realized the historical significance of the event. “Today, we sometimes take our civil rights for granted and forget what it was like decades ago when we could be arrested for just wearing drag,” explained Empress Coco LaChine. And Empress Karina Samala added, “Wearing that tag made me realize how far we’ve progressed, but it also made me aware of how much more we need to do to achieve acceptance and equality.”
The State may have taken away Jose’s platform by closing down the Black Cat that Halloween, but they couldn’t take away the impact he had already made. His boldness to challenge the law that night was a carefully crafted message to the establishment that the LGBTQ community was here to stay.
Sarria went on to found the Imperial Court System, which is the second largest LGBTQ nonprofit in the country today with 70 chapters in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Since 1965, they have raised millions of dollars for charities. Jose continued to perform and raise awareness for LGBT causes until his death in 2013.
On Oct. 15, the filmmakers, the organization HONORPAC and the Imperial Courts of Los Angeles/Hollywood will host a fundraiser for the documentary Nelly Queen as well as commemorate the Black Cat’s closure 53-years ago. The event will be held at the estate of Art Porter & Danny P’Lopez in the Hollywood hills above Lake Hollywood. The public is invited to view a clip of the soon to be released documentary.
The film’s producer, Danny De La Paz stressed that “Nelly Queen is not just an LGBT history lesson; it’s a triumphant story of the human spirit, a hero’s journey fighting unjust laws and uniting a fractured community.” Nelly Queen reveals an intimate portrait of the Latino civil rights pioneer whose heroic drag has long been overlooked as a cornerstone of the gay rights movement.
For tickets and more info on the event visit: or email