Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public Office Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Gay activist José Sarria ran for a seat on the San Francisco board of supervisors, becoming the first out gay or lesbian person to run for public office in the United States.

Summary of Event

José Sarria was born in San Francisco to a Colombian mother, whose family included members who had participated in several political revolts in Colombia. José’s father’s ancestors were from Spain, and some family members lived in Nicaragua. Because of his mother’s health problems and his father’s absence, José, as an infant, had been placed in the care of family friends, Jesserina and Charles Millen. [kw]Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public Office (1961) [kw]Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public Office, Sarria Is First (1961) [kw]Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public Office, Sarria Is First Out (1961) [kw]Lesbian Candidate for Public Office, Sarria Is First Out Gay or (1961) [kw]Candidate for Public Office, Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian (1961) [kw]Public Office, Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for (1961) [kw]Office, Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public (1961) Politicians;gay [c]Government and politics;1961: Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public Office[0560] [c]Civil rights;1961: Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public Office[0560] Sarria, José

During World War II, although not meeting the height and weight requirements, José Sarria persuaded an officer to sign the forms that allowed him to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once inducted, he was posted in Berlin. After World War II, he returned to San Francisco, where he worked as a waiter at the Black Cat, a gay bar. What began as impromptu singing and camp commentary by Sarria as he worked in the bar became a weekly drag show that drew large audiences. Sarria used this venue to raise consciousness by challenging the passive and self-loathing attitudes of many Black Cat customers. After each drag show he gave a pep talk to the audience and ended by singing a modified version of “God Save the Queen,” which he had called “God Save the Nellie Queens.” George Mendenhall, a Black Cat customer, recalled that at a time when many gays felt oppressed and powerless, “José would make these political comments about our rights as homosexuals. [Sarria’s comments marked] the beginning of my awareness as a gay person.”

After World War II, gays and lesbians had begun to discretely organize on behalf of their dignity and civil rights. In Los Angeles, Lisa Ben (pseudonym) published Vice Versa, an underground lesbian newsletter (1947-1948). In the 1950’s, the first lasting gay organizations in the United States (the Mattachine Society and ONE) and the first lesbian organization (Daughters of Bilitis) were formed. In San Francisco in 1959, Daughters of Bilitis, led by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, was instrumental in helping to defeat a homophobic mayoral candidate. Gays and lesbians began to gain skills and confidence in the political arena.

In 1961, Sarria formed the League for Civil Education, which provided educational programs about homosexuality and support for gays who had been victimized by police entrapment. After the league folded because of internecine conflicts, Sarria helped organize the Society for Individual Rights Society for Individual Rights (SIR), which provided a variety of social and legal services for the next seventeen years and was arguably the first gay community services center in the United States. In 1961, Sarria, ever the pioneer, decided to run for a seat on the San Francisco board of supervisors, San Francisco;board of supervisors becoming the first out homosexual to run for office in the United States. His campaign flyer quoted from the words engraved on the San Francisco Hall of Justice, which spoke of impartial enforcement of laws and equal justice for all.

Initially, Sarria had been one of nine candidates running for five seats on the board, but twelve hours before the filing deadline, a total of thirty-three candidates had filed. Some of the newcomers were undoubtedly drafted to weaken Sarria’s position. Although Sarria lost, he received more than fifty-five hundred votes and placed ninth overall, a sign that some people were willing to vote for an out gay person.


José Sarria’s run for office as an out gay person set a precedent that would inspire a new generation of activists during the following decade. After the Stonewall uprising of June, 1969, radical Gay Liberation Front groups proliferated across the United States and some out gays and lesbians decided to run for office. During the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950’s, Frank Kameny, an astronomer, had been fired from his job at a government agency because of his sexual orientation. Kameny did not go quietly. He sued the government but eventually lost his case. He became a full-time activist and an early promoter of radical, affirmative gay politics. The slogan Gay is Good "Gay is Good"[Gay is Good] is attributed to him. In 1971, he decided to run for Congress as an openly gay man. He placed fourth in a field of six candidates.

In 1973, Nancy Weschler and Jerry DeGrieck, two members of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, city council, came out. The following year was a watershed year for lesbian and gay electoral politics. Kathy Kozachenko ran as an out lesbian and won a seat on the Ann Arbor city council as well. In November, Elaine Noble, also an out lesbian, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and Minnesota state senator Alan Spears came out. In 1977, sixteen years after José Sarria’s run, Harvey Milk was the first out gay person elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors. Harvey, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone, was assassinated in 1978 by disgruntled former San Francisco supervisor Dan White.

In the 1980’s, Congressmen Gerry Studds (1983) and Barney Frank (1987), both from Massachusetts, came out as gay because of sex scandals. Republicans in the House of Representatives, Jim Kolbe (Arizona) and Steve Gunderson (Wisconsin), came out in the 1990’s. The millennium ended with out lesbian Tammy Baldwin elected from Wisconsin to the U.S. House of Representatives (1998). In 2003, Ron Oden became the first African American (and the first gay) mayor of Palm Springs, California. One year later, out lesbian Lupe Valdéz was elected sheriff of Dallas County, Texas. In 2006, New York City councilwoman Christine Quinn was elected as speaker of the council.

In an Echelon magazine article in early 2006, The Victory Fund, which provides support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) candidates, announced that since 1992, the number of out elected LGBT officials in the United States had grown from 49 to more than 350. Sarria, eighty-three years old in 2006 and the “grand dame” and “empress” of the court system (of drag culture) in San Francisco, has lived long enough to see the beginning of his dream of acceptance and dignity for LGBT people. Politicians;gay

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyd, Nan Alamilla, ed. Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullough, Vern L., Judith M. Saunders, and C. Todd White, eds. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Echelon. victoryfund.htm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gorman, Michael Robert. The Empress Is a Man: Stories from the Life of Jose Sarria. New York: Haworth Press, 1998.

1971: Kameny Is First Out Candidate for U.S. Congress

November 5, 1974: Noble Is First Out Lesbian or Gay Person to Win State-Level Election

July 14, 1983: Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress

November 6, 1984: West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council

May 30, 1987: U.S. Congressman Frank Comes Out as Gay

May 24, 1993: Achtenberg Becomes Assistant Housing Secretary

Categories: History