José Sarria
Primary Resource:
José Sarria Papers | GLBT Historical Society

Poster Location:


a.k.a. The Nightingale of Montgomery Street

a.k.a. Absolute Empress I de San Francisco
a.k.a. The Grand Mere 

a.k.a. The Widow Norton

José Julio Sarria is the epitome of the San Francisco queer icon. He was outspoken, he blurred the boundaries of gender, he was politically active and influential, and he was uncompromisingly true to himself. 

He was also a prolific and intersectional activist, cofounding no less than four of San Francisco’s iconic queer institutions. In memorializing José for this project, I am focusing on his involvement with the Tavern Guild, the Imperial Court, and the Society for Individual Rights. These three institutions are all inextricably intertwined with one another, with José square in the center of the venn diagram between the three.

The Tavern Guild, which formally began in 1962, linked San Francisco’s gay bars for the first time. It was founded to counteract the constant police harassment that gay bar owners faced at the time.

The Imperial Court of San Francisco originally began as an offshoot of the Tavern Guild, organized, “to educate and cultivate a greater community sense of gay pride, identity and a unity.”

The Society for Individual Rights, or SIR, was at one time the nation’s largest homophile organization. The SIR Community Center at 83 6th Street was the nation’s first LGBTQ+ community center, and played host to a smorgasbord of different queer social and activist groups.

José owned and operated a bar at 90 Market Street for 2 years in the 1960’s called The Talk of the Town. It’s right next to the kiosk where this poster is installed. 

He assumed the persona of “The Widow Norton,” deceased Empress and widow of Emperor Norton, a late legendary 19th century San Francisco eccentric personality... only possible in SF, just like José. The annual memorial service is still held every year at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma. José is now interred at the burial plot right next to Emperor Norton he purchased after the mass migration of caskets from San Francisco cemeteries to Colma that began in the 1880s.

You can watch a clip of José as the Widow Norton here (video is by Billy Clift):


*Image source indicated where available, and from the José Sarria Foundation.

Additional Resources

1) José Sarria Foundation—Organization dedicated to keeping José’s memory alive by continuing his life’s work of philanthropy.
2) The State Funeral for Gay Rights Pioneer José Sarria—Even José’s funeral was iconic; a riotous and tongue-in-cheek funeral procession took place at Grace Cathedral in September 2013.

A project of the San Francisco Arts Sommission’s Art on Market Street kiosk poster series,
funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.