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How José Sarria's activism paved the way for gay candidates in the U.S.


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: For the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, we return to our series "Hidden Histories." Tonight we look at the legacy of a Latino American political activist and drag performer who left his mark on U.S. history by paving the way for gay candidates.

Jose Sarria, Latino American Drag Performer And Political Activist: United we stand, divided they'll catch us one by one.

John Yang: Jose Sarria lived by those words throughout his life as a legendary drag performer, a gay rights activist and the nation's first known openly gay candidate for public office. He was born in San Francisco in 1922, the only child of a single mother from Colombia. She allowed him to dress as he pleased, even going with him when he went to dances in women's clothing.

Sarria's goal of teaching was put on hold with the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He left school and enlisted in the Army, convincing the recruiter to overlook the fact that at five feet he didn't meet the minimum height requirement.

In the army, he faced two obstacles. Openly gay people were barred from serving and he was the only Latinx soldier in an all-white unit. But he found respect and status as the orderly for a major who later was a colonel. Sarria was promoted to staff sergeant and followed the officer to the European theater and the Battle of the Bulge.

After the German surrender, he went with the colonel to Berlin, where he found a revitalized queer scene flourishing free from Nazi persecution.

When Sarria was honorably discharged from the army in 1947, he went back to San Francisco, eager to use his GI Bill benefits to become a teacher, but undercover officers arrested him for solicitation. To avoid publicity he pleaded guilty, only to learn later that it disqualified him from teaching.

He went to work as a waiter and host at the Black Cat Cafe, a longtime bohemian hangout with a growing gay clientele.

What began as an occasional song with the lounge pianist became regularly singing opera parodies and performing in drag. He became the club's star act, billed is the nightingale of Montgomery Street. He infused his performances with biting political commentary.

In 1955, San Francisco cracked down on LGBTQ+ establishments, sending undercover police to look for reasons to shut them down and arrest patrons and performers. The harassment moved Sarria to run for the City Board of Supervisors. Neither party would endorse him but after threatening to sue, he got on the ballot as a Democrat, the nation's first known openly gay candidate.

Jose Sarria: My fellow citizens of San Francisco. Tonight, I would like to explain my platform, equality before the law.

John Yang: Sarria lost but his campaign awakened the city's gay community to its political potential, paving the way for his friend Harvey Milk 16 years later to become one of the nation's first openly gay elected officials. For the rest of his life, Sarria remained an important figure in San Francisco's queer community.

In 1965, he founded the Imperial Court System, regarded as the oldest global LGBTQ+ charitable organization, raising money to fight AIDS, breast cancer, domestic abuse and homelessness. Sarria died from cancer in 2013. He was 90 years old.

Today, his legacy lives on through the Jose Sarria Foundation dedicated to preserving artifacts of queer history, his induction last month into the California Hall of Fame and the thousands of LGBTQ+ candidates who followed in his footsteps.

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