José Sarria

In Blackmail, My Love I created a character named José Sarria, based on the real performer and activist José Sarria, who passed away in August of 2013, just after I finished the novel. José performed opera and incendiary monologues at the legendary Black Cat Café, a “bohemian” bar in San Francisco’s North Beach, and ended many an evening with a rousing chorus of “God Save Us Nelly Queens.” In Blackmail, My Love, he does a stand-up piece about Alfred Kinsey, whose research was making headlines at the time. The real José ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, the first openly gay candidate for public office in the U.S., and also founded the Imperial Court System, which has grown into an international association of charitable organizations.

José displayed extraordinary elegance and wit in his acts of resistance. My favorite story about José is this: in San Francisco and cities throughout the U.S., Halloween was the one night when men wearing dresses were generally immune from arrest, but police cracked down at the stroke of midnight, routinely arresting wagonloads of men. José created felt patches in the shape of a black cat, inscribed with the words, “I am a boy.” He attached safety pins to the back so they could be worn, and passed them out at the Black Cat just before Halloween. Because California law prohibited men from wearing women’s clothing “with the intent to deceive,” the police backed off. José’s pins provided immunity for “crossdressing” revelers: protection from arrest by means of felt, glue, scissors, and safety pins.

You can see José reprise his role conducting “God Save Us Nelly Queens” at a Black Cat reunion in the film, Before Stonewall: the Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community, directed by Greta Schiller. His life is chronicled in The Empress Is A Man: Stories from the Life of José Sarria, by Michael R. Gorman, and is the subject of a forthcoming movie, Nelly Queens, by Joe Castel.

José Sarria