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The State Funeral for Gay Rights Pioneer Jose Sarria, Empress I de San Francisco

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The September 6, 2013 "state funeral service" for Jose Sarria, a.k.a. Empress I de San Francisco, The Widow Norton was held at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. It was a service the likes of which have never been seen before in San Francisco, or anywhere.

Ron Henggeler

September 6, 2013, there was the "state funeral service" for Jose Sarria, a.k.a. Empress I de San Francisco, The Widow Norton. This funeral at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill was a service the likes of which have never been seen before in San Francisco, or anywhere.

Jose Sarria was a veteran of World War II, a drag queen, and gay rights pioneer who founded the theatrical Imperial Court organization. He has been rightly called the Rosa Parks of the Gay Rights Movement. Jose Sarria was the first openly gay person to run for political office in the U.S., narrowly losing a bid for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961.

In 1965, Jose Sarria declared himself Empress I de San Francisco, The Widow Norton, in a gesture to beloved legendary kook Emperor Joshua Norton, a Barbary Coast-era lunatic who declared himself Emperor of the United States a century before. Joshua Abraham Norton (circa 1819 – January 8, 1880), the self-proclaimed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco, California. In 1859 he declared himself "Emperor of these United States" and subsequently "Protector of Mexico".

Fittingly, Sarria long ago purchased a burial plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma adjacent to that of Joshua Norton.

Sarria died on August 19, 2013, at the age of 90. True to Sarria's big personality, as the founder of the theatrical Imperial Court organization, he had left behind detailed instructions for his funeral. The "state funeral services" for Jose Sarria, a.k.a. Empress I de San Francisco, The Widow Norton took place beginning at 11 a.m. at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill in San Francisco.

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At the event there were laughter and tears for Jose Sarria. Maurice Gerry, an old friend of Sarria's, spoke during A Celebration of Life service.

Sarria's instructions for the funeral included a dress code. He requested that all "female" Court members, i.e. the drag Empresses who followed him in annual coronation ceremonies here and in other chapter organizations around the country, come in "full-length (understated) Mourning attire" including, but obviously not limited to, "Crowns, Shoulder Length Veils Covering both Crowns and one's face, and Black gloves (opera length if wearing short sleeves)."

Nicole Murray-Ramirez (center with the feathered hat), is Queen Mother of the Americas of the International Court System Canada-United States-Mexico.


Sarria’s tiara and mourning veil.

And San Francisco said goodbye to Jose Sarria, better known as Empress I de San Francisco, The Widow Norton.

For more information on Jose Sarria and the funeral, please read the stories
"Pioneering gay activist dies at age 90,"
"Elaborate drag funeral at Grace Cathedral,"
the announcement of the funeral,
and Carl Nolte's San Francisco Chronicle article about the funeral.



Ron Henggeler is a photographer in San Francisco. All funeral photos © Ron Henggeler 2013.

Copyright © Ron Henggeler. All rights reserved.

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