The Jose Sarria Archives initially began as my own personal quest to preserve our history. Just as I have collected items from the history of my own court, the Alamo Empire in San Antonio, TX, I had been collecting items relevant to the International Court System in general and Jose in particular. After Jose passed there was an auction of his estate with funds raised earmarked to complete the documentary on his life, Nelly Queen: The Life & Times of Jose Sarria. At the time of the auction, I had some extra money set aside and decided to purchase as many items as I could to prevent them from being lost. So now with those items added to my existing collection, I was struck with a “now what” moment, I feared if something happened to me, where would these items go. After a conversation with my friend Bob Toane in Edmonton, who was a very close friend of Jose’s, I decided to create a foundation to honor Jose and it could become the long-term caretakers of my archival items.
The Jose Sarria Foundation was incorporated in 2016 and we held our first display of the archives in Feb 2017 in San Diego. It was received very well and we kept expanding the archives with additional purchases from individuals and as they came up for sale in fundraising auctions. Many individual friends of Jose’s also stepped forward to donate items to the archives to help protect them and allow Jose’s inspiring story to be told. This two-month Jose Sarria Museum popup in Palm Springs brought even more donations as folks would walk into the museum with a story about Jose and items, they wanted us to have. It was amazing the number of folks who came in that knew Jose and shared very important stories about him.
In addition to the archives, we focused our initial efforts on raising funds to complete the film, Nelly Queen. That film was completed, and the premiere was to have been in Summer 2020 in Los Angeles, but COVID derailed that plan. Since then, we have taken the film and small archival displays to universities to share Jose with a new generation of activists.
The importance in remembering the legacy of Jose Sarria?
In many ways Jose and his numerous contributions have been forgotten. Ask most people and they assume the first out candidate for public office was Harvey Milk, or that the fight for LGBTQ+ equality began with Stonewall. Why even in Palm Springs, a pamphlet at the Stonewall Democrats booth detailing the timeline of LGBTQ+ community in politics had no mention of Jose. They know now after I shared his story with them. Why even our own community has often trivialized the contributions of Drag Queens and gender non-conforming members. It wasn’t that many years ago when in some cities Pride organizers sought to “mainstream” the parades and stage participants to limit Drag and the leather community.
It’s vitally important for folks to know the first out candidate for public office was a proud Latino Drag Queen. That’s an audacious act even today, much less in 1961. We must share the story of the out proud Latino, WW2 veteran, professional cabaret performer, a Drag Queen, civil rights activist, community organizer, Empress and the first out candidate for public office when he ran in 1961. Researchers have determined he was the first to coin the phrase “Gay Community”, so to us, Jose was the “Mother” of the LGBTQ+ Community. His cries of “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one” and his fight against police harassment are as important today as they were back then. Especially when you consider how many are attacking our community through their attacks on Drag Queens. We must unite now, just as we did back then.
How long did it take for the Walk of Stars to decide on honoring Jose with one?
We initially approached the Walk of Stars committee two years ago with the concept, but at that time they were revamping the process of adding new stars. Then in late 2021 I submitted the nomination forms and followed up through 2022. We received confirmation in early September that Jose had been selected. We had already decided to host the month-long museum so now we had to expand our fundraising and scope of 100th birthday celebrations.
How can people help the maintenance and survival of the Archive and the Star?
We need volunteers to share Jose’s story, we need to share the film Nelly Queen with more universities and communities and we need financial support to keep sharing Jose’s message. The two-month Jose Sarria Museum pop up was a huge expense but being open every day in the middle of Palm Springs with huge signs on the outside of the building allowed folks to trip over Jose and learn about him. The number of young LGBTQ+ folks who had no idea who Jose was or what he did was shocking, but them being energized by learning about him was inspiring. We would love to host more Museum pop ups and hope to one day have a permanent museum. Visit Jose’s Palm Springs Walk of Stars at the corner of Belardo and Museum Way, right next to the Forever Marilyn statue.
If your readers would like to get involved or donate, please go to josesarria.org or donate via Venmo at @josesarriafoundation
We plan to include some of the Jose Sarria Archives at the Imperial Court de San Diego Coronation 51 on February 4th, in San Diego. We hope to see you there.