Perry. Milk. Frank. Kramer. Windsor.
A couple of months ago when Edie Windsor’s case against the Supreme Court led to a legal federal recognition of marriage equality (limited, as it was to those individuals married legally by states), I posted a list of names similar to the one above.
I was sadly shocked when so many of my friends, who are peers of my age group, asked me who they were. (They're all linked to Wikipedia, so look 'em up and learn!) I guess I’m one of the lucky ones: studying gender history in college, a class or two in LGBT literature, being an activist since I was 14 years old. I’ve gotten the chance to chat with Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and Larry Kramer. But I’m terribly lucky in that I had the chance to know Jose Sarria.
The world became a little less sparkly this week when Jose died at the age of 90, but as the first openly gay candidate for public office in our country’s history, and later as the founder of the International Imperial Court System, he directly inspired tens of thousands of people, and his work impacted tens of millions more.
I don’t need to recount his full bio: WWII Vet, Legendary Cabaret Performer, World’s Fair Entrepreneur, Political organizer, activist, nurturer and mother to us all. You can read his memoir, “The Empress is a Man,” or any number of the obituaries that are running right now. But I do want to take a minute to reflect on the man himself.
I met Jose for the first time in 1998 during New York’s Coronation Weekend. Because I have a tendency to revere our legends and trailblazers, I confess to being a little nervous to meet him. When I did however, I found him to be warm, charming and just a little bit wicked. At that point in his life, he would come East for several months at a time, hitting a number of East Coast Coronations while he visited with old friends. When he was in town, members of the Court would often take him to dinner: he was a fascinating companion and never seemed to run out of stories. One night, probably in 1999, I invited him to dinner and stopped by Empress Coco LaChine’s apartment to pick him up. We hopped into a cab, maneuvered through pre-theatre traffic and arrived at what was then one of my favorite spots: Rachel’s, a small American bistro on 9th Avenue. Because of the time of night, there was a line to get into the place. I took Jose’s arm and guided him past the line to the maitre’d’s desk and said, “Reservation for Sarria.” The host immediately showed us to the only empty table in the place, past people waiting at the bar and through the crowded dining room. People wondered who we were! When he left us with our menus, Jose leaned over with a twinkle in his eye and simply asked, “So Witti…when do you want to be Empress?” It took a dozen more years before that would come to pass, but he was eager and willing to nurture the young kid, helping to build and ensure a new generation of leaders would be ready to step up when called.
We had polite conversation on a few more occasions in the late 90’s and early aughts, but then I took some time away from the Court System for a few years. When I returned, and brought my partner with me, Jose had handed over day-to-day operations of the system to Nicole the Great. This meant that he had the time to be even more sociable during visits, and he always loved holding court.
Mind you, with Jose, holding court was like having a conversation with a great-aunt who’d been there and done that. One of his greatest talents was to make you feel like you were a part of his world, one of his children. Despite having founded and nurtured the second largest LGBT organization in the world, he never lost his humility and never stopped his encouragements.
In February, 2010, my partner Ian Flagrante and I travelled to Connecticut for their ball. Now , as much as I have a respect for our elderstatesmen, Ian has even more than I do. He was very interested to meet Mama Jose, and she immediately fell in love with him. For a couple years I was “that cute cub’s drag queen boyfriend,” even though Jose had known me for more than a decade. Jose introduced himself to Ian in his usual, customary and wickedly exploratory way, and found himself at a loss for words as Ian introduced himself in HIS customary way. They hit it off immediately and spent several minutes in conversation. We had the fortune to visit with Jose more that weekend, and later in New York, took him to brunch several times.
In 2012, when I was crowned Empress of New York, I was disappointed that Jose could not make the journey to the east coast. He was nearly 90, and beginning to suffer the effects of the illnesses that would eventually end his life. Jose had a very special relationship with my Emperor, Ritz Kraka, and we made a point of sending photos and a note out to Jose after we were crowned.
I was pleased and honored to be invited to San Francisco in August of 2012 to join with the Imperial Court of San Francisco at their 40th Anniversary of the Emperors. Jose and I had a few chuckles that night, but whether I was projecting, or whether he was truly feeling unwell, his energy was lower. He was as gracious as ever, but some of the spark seemed to have faded, and while I enjoyed seeing him, I was sad in the knowledge that it might be the last time.
Fortunately, the gods smiled on the both of us. This past year in February, I attended San Francisco’s coronation ball, and Jose was in the rarest of spirits: he was active, engaged, had more twinkle than an elf, and was full of good humor, dirty stories and memories to share. I was lucky enough to spend a good half hour with him at the hotel, and was excited to be participating in the annual pilgrimage to Emperor Norton’s grave on Sunday morning. At 90 years old, Jose was up and full of energy at 7 in the AM. As queens 1/3 of his age moped onto the bus, there was Mama in full face chastising them, teasing them, joking with them and telling stories about past trips to the cemetery. He proceeded to treat the bus ride as his own personal cabaret and kept telling stories and jokes the whole way. We got there, and he hosted a continental breakfast, and then led the procession up the hill: musicians, drag queens, performers. My memory gets muddy when I think of him running the entire show at graveside, but if he didn’t, he was a full and active part of it. More stories, more jokes, more jabs at his favorite targets. He was having a blast, and we all were too. The bus ride back to the hotel was more of the same as his energy kept rising and bouncing off a bus full of his children and grandchildren. Even an hour later at brunch, he was still going and joking and jabbing and full, as always, of his unique brand of folk wisdom.
That WAS the last time I got to spend time with Jose Sarria, Absolute Empress I, The Widow Norton. But man, what an amazing man, what a great rally that weekend, and what an incredible life. On September 6, I will be attending his state funeral in San Francisco and Jose will be making his final pilgrimage up the hill to rest beside Joshua. Somehow, I don’t think it will be the final trip for anyone else.
Good night, Mama. You broke ground and inspired us all by being who you were and figuring out clever ways to get around those who said you couldn’t. We need more like you, but will take your lessons and your heart and try to keep part of you with us always.
So my lesson is: when you meet a legend, don’t forget that they’re human, just like you are, and probably have some really fascinating things to share. Talk to them, laugh with them, and occasionally, buy them dinner. Your life will be richer for it.