New Doc: First Openly Gay Man to Run for Political Office was Latino World War II Veteran

New Doc: First Openly Gay Man to Run for Political Office was Latino World War II Veteran

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Historic LGBT activist & performer inspires in new documentary – Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Julio Sarria

Jose Sarria ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ in 1961, 11 years before Harvey Milk’s first campaign bid, making the Latino World War II veteran the first openly gay man to run for office in the United States.

Sarria was not only openly gay, he also was a notorious female impersonator who sang at the bohemian Black Cat Café in the city’s North Beach district. Los Angeles filmmaker Dante Alencastre is directing a feature documentary on the legendary activist and performer entitled, Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Julio Sarria, to be released later this year.

The director took on the project because he believes Sarria, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 90, hasn’t received the national recognition he deserves.

“There are Latino leaders in the LGBT movement that often go unrecognized. Jose’s story needs to be shared not only because he was an openly gay Latino leader but because he was not ashamed to embrace all aspects of his gender identity,” said Alencastre.

The Empress I, Jose, the Widow Norton’s mink jacket. Photo: Brian Ashby
The Empress I, Jose, the Widow Norton’s mink jacket. Photo: Brian Ashby

From 1951-1963, Sarria stood in bright red heels and sang torch songs accompanied by a honky-tonk piano. But more importantly, the entertainer inspired his closeted clientele to stand up for their civil rights.

The director came up with the name Nelly Queen because whenever the vice squad entered the café to entrap patrons, Sarria exposed them by forcing his audience to stand up and sing “God, Save Us Nelly Queens,” a takeoff on Britain’s national anthem.

When officials vowed to shut down San Francisco’s gay bars, Sarria threw caution to the wind and campaigned for a seat on the City’s Board of Supervisors in 1961. 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.

The 90-minute documentary, sponsored in part by the LGBTQ Task Force and The International Court System, revolves around personal footage taken by Sarria’s close friend and the film’s Executive Producer, Joe Castel, spanning 23-years from 1992 to 2013.

“Few people get to meet their heroes, and even fewer become best friends,” said Castel.

The film captures never seen before footage of the diva, including a reenactment of his days as the singing waiter at the Black Cat and a hysterical performance of Bizet’s Carmen.

The filmmakers have listed some of Sarria’s cherished items as “Perks” on Indiegogo.

“We couldn’t think of a better way of preserving Jose’s legacy than by making a film about his major accomplishments,” said Castel. “It’s what he always wanted, and with that in mind, several items purchased from his estate sale will be available online, including his mink jacket and a Spanish comb he wore in Carmen. The campaign ends March 26.

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