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When San Francisco city officials vowed to shut down all the gay bars in 1961, the 38-year-old female impersonator threw caution to the wind and campaigned for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. 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.

Why is it Called “Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Julio Sarria”?

From 1951-1963, Sarria stood in bright red heels on table tops at the Black Cat Café in San Francisco to sing torch songs accompanied by a honky-tonk piano. The diva performed one-man opera parodies, replacing the straight love story with a gay one. 

Whenever the vice squad entered the café to entrap patrons, Sarria exposed them by forcing his closeted patrons to stand up and sing “God, Save Us Nelly Queens,” a takeoff on Britain’s national anthem as the vice marched out of the café. 

Why is Jose Important Now?

Jose is important today as he was back in 1961 when he ran for office. Nelly Queen is not just an LGBT history lesson; it’s a triumphant story of the human spirit, a hero’s journey of a man fighting unjust laws and uniting a fractured community. Jose stands as a courageous role model to people still struggling with their sexual identity and self-esteem.

Nelly Queen: the Life and Times of Jose Sarria is a feature documentary of the first openly gay American to run for public office in 1961.

This 90-minute feature documentary celebrates the social, cultural and political legacy

of Jose Sarria, the world’s first gender nonconformist to run for public office in 1961.

Nelly Queen is the first feature documentary that focuses solely on pioneer activist

Jose Sarria (1922-2013) and his milestone contributions to the LGBTQ movement.

Jose Sarria started one of the first nonprofit LGBTQ organizations in 1965 that

welcomed transgender persons and encouraged them to take on activist leadership

roles within the Imperial Court System. Today, there are 70 chapters across the U.S.,

including chapters in Canada and Mexico, making it the second largest LGBTQ

organization in the country. Many of his members and admirers are transgenders and

gender nonconformists.

Through interviews taped over a period of 23 years, Nelly Queen reveals an intimate

portrait of a gender nonconformist performer who, during the 1950s and early 1960s,

brazenly stood up to corrupt San Francisco police and undercover officers and litigated

anti-gay city ordinances. When San Francisco politicians threatened to shut down the

gay bars, Sarria ran as an 

openly gay candidate for City Supervisor, 11 years before

Harvey Milk.

Long Beach QFilm Festival - Audience Award for Best Feature Film - 2019.png


"...complete with Ken Burns-style zooms on photos, a plethora of archival footage, and plenty of standard talking heads, the film stands out in many ways. First and foremost, Castel filmed Sarria for over twenty years, a feat which should cause any film lover to stand on top of a chair and respectfully slow clap." 

The Queer Review


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