Tuesday, August 20, 2013

RIP José Sarria: God Save Us Nelly Queens

I remember when I first heard about José Sarria, reading about his iconic 1961 run for city council  in San Francisco in The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.  I was in awe that someone could do such a thing and receive thousands and thousands of votes doing so.  But Sarria did so, using humor and camp to make a point that he represented a very real constituency.  In doing so, he changed social mores, cultural attitudes, and history. 

Images of Sarria in the early court and in the military where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. 

Twin Peaks Tavern

My godfather ran into Sarria at the Twin Peaks bar in San Francisco and got me his number for our interview.  The following is an excerpt from Queer Politics and Political Performance:

 “Someone had to lead the parade.  And I was the one.  But there is a pleasure in being out there,” Sarria reflects.  The story of Sarria’s life is the stuff of transgression and legend.  His social drama harkens to Turners’ view that play alters rules, shifting terms and expectations of social reality. 
                Years before the Stonewall uprising, queers in San Francisco helped cobble together a distinct political coalition between bar goers, bar owners, nightlife people, homophile organizations, drag performers, and civil rights groups (Boyd, 2003).  José  Sarria was one of the most playful of actors within the opera of West Coast queer activism.  It was with this approach that Sarria made his audacious and surprisingly successful run for a spot on New York City council – a first for an openly out gay person.  His life story offers a clear look at the collision of play and politics, drama and social movement action. 

Interview with the Empress
                I interviewed Sarria in the summer of 2007.  I had known of Sarria from accounts in a range of works on post-war San Francisco (Boyd, 2003; Shilts, 1982), and was happy  to know Sarria, who was born in 1923, was still around.  A significant portion of his story is included here.  
                I started the phone interview by asking Sarria when he first had inkling he was gay.  “I was always that way.  It wasn’t like a switch that you turn it on.”
                José described his life during World War II.  “I served in the Army, in the infantry, fought in the Battle of the Bulge.”  From December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, with over 19,000 U.S.  casualties during fighting in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.  Yet, Sarria fought, coped, and survived the war, much as he would as a legendary drag icon. 
 “After the war, I lived in occupied Berlin,” Sarria explained.  I immediately wondered if Sarria, who would became famous for his work in a cabaret-like setting, had sought out any cabaret culture in post-war Berlin or if there was anything left.  After all, much of the life of the public sphere of the Weimar cabaret was a location where play and pleasure overlapped, followed by anihilation.  Much of the modernist promise of the Weimar cabaret became a target of Nazi controls because it was so devastating to the status quo (Gordan, 2000).  Yet, Sarria still found remnants within the post-war Berlin milieu.  “I was very fortunate.  I was quite involved in the big people of cabaret of the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s in Berlin.  I was acquainted with Max Reinhardt, Hans Albers, Frita Schuster.”  Sarria described how they all coped.  “Oh yes, they had their tales, they survived it because a lot of these people were Jewish.  And they saw the writing on the wall.  They left Berlin but they would always try to come back,” Sarria explained.  “I believe Max Reinhardt come to the United States.  And then he got caught there.  But he couldn’t go back.”  During the years before the war, many such as Reinardt were involved in restaging and reinventing what the theater could be.  In some cases, classical plays were reconceived and staged in social terms, as moral conflict.  In other cases, street theater and agit-prop challenged understandings of current social and political events.  During Weimar, theater was politics (Kaes et al, 1994).  Once back home in San Francisco, Sarria would use the theater for similar ends. 
                “I knew drag queens but they didn’t dress up.  There were drag queens but I didn’t associate with them,” he explained before asking me what I meant.  A frequent dynamic of our interviews involved Sarria turning the tables, asking why I was asking what I was asking.  It was not hard to imagine Sarria shaking people out of their comfortable roles—interviewer and interviewee, passive audience member and active performer.  I described the NYC Drag March and Jack Smith’s differentiation between the bland citizens and the flaming creatures. I suggested characterization spoke to a broad queer disposition. “I never use that word,” he retorted, reflecting a sentiment not uncommon among those who were around before it was considered a transgressive term.  “See, those people like that I call bohemians,” Sarria explained.  “Free thinkers.  They are people who wouldn’t have put on a dress but they are independent people.  It wasn’t like they were going out and they purposefully wanted to be independent people.   They were bohemians.” 
                After the war, Sarria found work at a bar called, the Black Cat, back at home in San Francisco.  “That was not a gay bar.  But that is where women didn’t wear brassieres.  That’s where the women smoke in public.”  Instead of being a specifically gay space, the Black Cat was a space for outsiders, for defiance of social mores.  “Smoking in public for women was not an accepted thing.  But there were women who smoked in public.  When my grandmother was alive she smoked a black cigar.  That was society’s thing.  But you can’t say she was a drag queen.”  It was just part of what people adored about the bar chalk full of ideas and possibilities located at 710 Montgomery Street.  Jack Kerouac wrote about it in On the Road.  Truman Capote used the space as his refuge, and Gay Liberation found some its footing and thrived there.  If José Sarria’s life was a social drama, the Black Cat was the set for the performance.  One-part bar, another dance hall, and third as a stage for a revolutionary theater, the Black Cat is legendary.  Allan Ginsberg once dubbed it “the greatest gay bar in America.”  At a time when the Castro was just a quiet residential district, legal battles over the right to run “gay business” were first won there. Yet, not without a long fight over the right for a place to play, which lead the heterosexual owner through a struggle that ended at the California Supreme Court in 1951 (Pomerantz, undated).
                The Black Cat opened just as Prohibition was coming to an official end in 1933.  Yet, much of the municipality had openly flaunted the federal directive (Boyd, 2003),  and bar culture in San Francisco thrived as part of a bursting public sphere.  Queer patrons only increased with military policy prohibiting gays or anyone else who “habitually or occasionally engaged in homosexual or other perverse sexual practices,” during WWII (quoted in Pomerantz, undated).  Many found a place in San Francisco part of a new social and cultural explosion (D’Emilio, 1983; Sadownick, 1996).  The city had always been a place where social outsiders came to reinvent themselves.  Through these waves of outcasts, a different kind of storyline of queer life found expression¾the making of a vast civil society borne of an underground bar culture, cross-dressing, performance, and conviviality (Boyd, 2003).
                Among the waves of dreamers to find their way to San Francisco was a group of writers, who came to inspire a new movement for freedom. According to Regina Marla, editor of Queer Beats (2004), the Beats were queer in the fullest sense of the word. Their influence on the city began only a few years after Sarria started working at the Black Cat.  By 1955, their movement reached an apex.  Perched in a smoky coffee hoUSe deep in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, Ginsberg would contribute to this burgeoning queer civil society. He first read, performed, and screamed “Howl” at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. The first lines are now familiar enough, yet from the vantage point of 1950s America, they are striking: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” (Ginsberg, 1956).   While “Howl” did not explicitly speak out about Gay Liberation, its striking imagery openly expresses a longing for another way of being in the world. The poem features images of queer sexuality with a positive, albeit tongue-in-cheek humor.  The poem’s heroes are those who struggle to live authentically, those who could feel, those who, “broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons,” those who, “shrieked with delight in police cars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication.” It is a reference to police enforcement of blue laws and harassment of homosexuals, those arrested for partaking in the public sexual culture  (Munoz, 1996; Turner, 2003). Throughout the poem, Ginsberg rails about, the “heterosexual dollar.”  In so doing, he links capital with heterosexuality in what queer theorists a generation later would describe as “heteronormativity,” in which the opposition is normativity, not necessarily heterosexuality itself (Warner 1993).  What emerges within “Howl,” is narrative of cultural abundance, capable of cultural transformation.  The poem traces a desperate frUStration with the commoditization and blandification of US cultural life in the 1950s.  “Howl” reflects themes which would accompany many of the narratives of Gay Liberation: a call for an end to attacks on public sexuality; an appreciation for the spiritual potential of Eros; and a critique of consumer culture. For Ginsberg, the problem is “lacklove.” It is the lack of love that is driving everyone mad. It is not getting love that loves people crazy.”
                Within walking distance of the coffee shops, jazz bars, and the Six Gallery where Ginsberg first read “Howl,” a different, albeit no less significant type of queer political performance was taking place at the Black Cat.  Vesuvio Bar, housing City Lights Books, was up the street.  Artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Ralph and Peter Stackpole, lived just across the street (Pomerantz, undated).   
                 “At first I would work as a cocktail waiter,” Jose Sarria recalled.  “And then I became the hostess, greeting people.  I was not a bartender.  I was serving.   And while serving, it developed into doing a show, talking.  I was a stand-up comedian.”  Dressed in heels, his accompaniment of the arias from Bizet’s Carmen, mixed with camp and even a little politics, became a fixture of San Francisco cultural life. 
                “The tour buses would come by the Black Cat, the drivers would say, ‘You want to see a good show, go there and see this. He does four shows a night,’” Sarria recalled.  “I was the star. I got up, told my stories, sang my songs, and it was fantastic,” (quoted in Boyd, 2003, p. 23).   There the crowds applauded Sarria’s Weimar like play in gender norms and social expectations.  “People wanted to sing and dance and they didn’t care whether a man played the women’s part.”
                “I was a comedian,” Sarria explained.  With music, politics, and political performance, the show built on the Brechtian (1926/1994) sense that theater should be staged for popular audiences; it should be used as a tool for social change that regular working people enjoy, are entertained and provoked by.   He described the show: “I would sing a song, interview people, read the paper.  I would read the paper as I interpreted activity against the community.”   Sarria’s performances included observations of the pulse of Baghdad by the Bay as well as an affirmative message that gay was good.  Queers had nothing to be ashamed of.  “People were in the closet,” Sarria explained to me.    “I couldn’t understand that.  I couldn’t understand people living double lives.  And I fought against that.  I found that to be objectionable.”  
                In the face of entrapment and arrests of homosexuals, McCarthy-era harassment (Duberman, 1991), and raids on gay bars (Boyd, 2003), Sarria defied oppression with a high-octane dose of humor. “There is nothing wrong with being gay¾the crime is getting caught,” he camped it up, while advancing a far more affirmative narrative of queer life. “United we stand, divided they catch US one by one,” Sarria exclaimed in an early expression of queer solidarity (Boyd, 2003; Jones, 1997).
                Sarria’s performances challenged the official silences, the prohibition of speaking about the realities of queer life and struggles related to it, cutting through the pretenses and proprieties with humor.  “Wit does not make compromises as the dream does,” Freud writes.  “[I]t does not yield to the inhibition, but insists on retaining unchanged with the play with words,” (quoted in Brown, 1959, p. 62–3).  The humor helped those attending his shows to cut through the subterfuge.  “[T]he dream is always a wish, but wit is actualized play,” Brown (1959) elaborates (p. 65).  By allowing people to laugh, Sarria offered patrons a new perspective on their experience, while compelling them to create alternate narratives.  Authoritarians and bureaucrats usually resent all types of humor, especially the cutting jokes.  Political humor’s strength stems from its subversive character.  Such jokes represent the world in a comic mirror, distorting the powers that be by turning them upside down.  Sarria’s unending tirade about the police altered terms of social and cultural power (Ornstein, 1998).  Such laughter creates an emotional release to lighten up heavy moments; serves as a coping tool; it increasing energy and confidence.  Many found the Black Cat to be an intoxicating space. 

                “They were harassing the general public and I could not understand that,” Sarria explained to me.  “They would come in to harass people.  They didn’t want people to gather. And that was wrong.”  And Sarria called them on it in his campy performances.  By joking, while informing people about the harassment, Sarria USed laughter to create a space for actors to reconsider their realities and perhaps to create something different. 

“The law is that if a police officer comes in and you ask him if he is a police officer, he has to tell you,” Sarria explained.  “And intuition would tell me that that was a police officer and I would stop.  And I’d say, ‘Are you a police officer?’  And he’d have to say yes or no and that would embarrass him.”   The police thrive on secrecy, which Sarria was blowing.  “That was the other thing and they didn’t like that.  These were undercover people that were coming in to find people to harass and they were trying to change the law.  And once they did that we would take them to court.”  And once they lose that they lose some power.  “Then they couldn’t be undercover.  They couldn’t do the dirty work that they were sent out to do.” The performances achieved their meanings in their linkage between cultural symbols, depictions of power and oppression, as well as cultural sources of emancipation within a highly participatory form of theatrical performance which invited social actors to envision possible alternate realities (Eyerman, 2008). 
Much of the performance involved playing with the presumed power of the undercover officers.  “They intimidated.  When you fight intimidation, you’re using power.”  Once one stops being afraid of a problem, one becomes free to assess and deconstruct it.  And obstacles lose their intransigent power.  The freedom to experiment with alternate interpretations usually accompanies the space to joke about the serious.  The types of laughter Sarria inspired suggested that the world does not have to be accepted at face value.  By transforming intractable rules into manageable challenges, laughter creates fluidity where stark reality once loomed (Sanders, 1995).  Social movements are born through just this sort of shift in the ways people view social problems.  If a problem ceases to feel inevitable, but rather something someone can change, then an opportunity is at hand.  Through his subversive performances, Sarria insisted police harassment was little more than a nuisance.    

In other cases, Sarria pointed out the undercover officers.  He would have the audience clap for the undercover police when they would enter the bar (Boyd, 2003; Jones, 1997).  He’d add warnings about imminent raids to his songs, which became a practical messaging device.  His campy, humorous performances thus served as tactical tools to resist the vice squad which typically harassed such venues.  While entertaining, his act could also be understood as forms of cultural resistance.

Each show ended with Sarria asking patrons to stand and accompany him as he sang “God Save US Nelly Queens,” to the tune of “God Save the Queen.”   I have seen old Black Cat patrons start to cry when they sing that song—even decades later  (Schiller and Rosenberg, 1985).  I asked Sarria what it meant for people to hear that song.  “Well, it was the first time that people acknowledged that they were gay, that they had the same rights as everybody else, that they shouldn’t be discriminated against,” he explained. “And I made everybody realize that.  I made everyone stand up and say I’m gay, so what.”  Audience members participated in a social drama which transformed their lives…..

The plot of Sarria’s life and times can easily be understood as part of a larger-than-life story which profoundly impacted collective identity in San Francisco at the time.  Sarria explains, “I used to sing, ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall.’  I put everybody in the pot, mixed the pot, opened the doors...”  The social drama of Jose Sarria’s life unfolds as a cultural tales which changed rules and states to be reality, a life performance which shifted the trajectory of queer life.  The plays the thing Hamlet used to reach the king.  Sarria used it to capture the imagination of a city.  Yet, it was not about Sarria individual life story as much as it was about the spectators at his shows, who welcomed the invitation to join a grand social drama, which changed the way a city understood itself. 

Back in the days when he first helped organize the Tavern Guild, nearly a half a century ago, Sarria was dubbed ‘the drag queen of the Imperial Court,’ a court which is still active today.  Sarria is affectionately known as ‘Grand Mama’ (Jones, 1997; Pomerantz, undated).  And today, when Sarria attends coronation events, he still sees people whose lives were profoundly impacted by the social drama of his own life.  “When we go to a coronation, you look around the room.  Some people met their lover there, and that makes people really happy.”  From Berlin to the Black Cat, Sarria helped create a fantastical new storyline of queer life – one in which countless actors dream to play a part.

Today, the Imperial Court is still thriving, raising millions of dollars for queer groups, such as New Alternatives for LGBT Youth.  Thank you for all you have been to everyone José.  God Bless You and the Nelly Queens you helped laugh.

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