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San Francisco's Castro



by Strange de Jim

May 21 & 25, 2006

Harvey Milk opens strong. He has not only a high school in his native New York named after him, but both a Plaza and a block-long Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in San Francisco ...

...with several wonderful murals on the walls.

But now Jose Sarria has a street named after him, also with great murals.

Harvey Milk has a San Francisco Public Library branch named after him.

Now Jose Sarria has his name over the door of Harvey's library.

Who are these men, and why have they been so honored?

In Harvey Milk Plaza, at the corner of Market and Castro, is a bronze plaque describing Harvey Milk's life:

HARVEY MILK, May 22, 1930 - November 23, 1978

Harvey Milk Plaza is named in honor of San Francisco's Harvey Milk, California's first elected official to be openly gay.

In 1973, Harvey Milk opened Castro Camera at 575 Castro Street and moved into the apartment upstairs. Harvey's store soon became a center for public meetings and voter recruitment drives. Through his involvement in neighborhood affairs, Harvey earned the title "The Mayor of Castro Street."

As the influx of gay men and lesbians revitalized the neighborhood, Harvey assumed leadership of the Castro Village Merchants Association. In 1974 he organized the original Castro Street Fair.

In January 1976, Mayor George Moscone appointed Harvey to the Board of Permit Appeals as San Francisco's first openly gay Commissioner. In the 1977 District Election of Supervisors, Harvey was elected to the Board from the district.

Harvey Milk was a representative of a despised minority, yet his lasting triumph is that he championed the rights of all people. In his tragically short term as Supervisor, Harvey Milk authored San Francisco's Gay Rights Ordinance and fought for the causes of women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, renters, environmentalists, union members and neighborhood residents. He also worked to establish district elections and improve public transit. He was the first city official to use a Muni Fast Pass every day.

Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated on November 27, 1978. That night 40,000 San Franciscans gathered at this site and proceeded to City Hall in a candlelight march.

Harvey Milk Plaza was dedicated on September 15, 1985 by Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Board of Supervisors President John L. Molinari and Harvey's successor Supervisor Harry Britt.

"I am all of us!" - Harvey Milk

A plaque in the sidewalk in front of the library explains Jose Sarria's legacy:

Jose Sarria Court honors the humor, political savvy and talent of a great San Franciscan.

Born in 1923, Sarria's performance career began in the 1950s. In 1961, Sarria ran for San Francisco City Supervisor, the first openly gay candidate to run for office in the United States.

Four years later, Sarria declared himself "Her Imperial Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, Jose I, the Widow Norton," a reference to the colorful 19th-Century San Franciscan, Joshua Norton, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Sarria's Coronation inspired the creation of the International Imperial Court System, a service organization with affiliates across the globe.

This plaque was made possible by the International Imperial Court Council with the support of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Sunday, May 21, a display of photographs depicting the life of Harvey Milk is unveiled at Harvey Milk Plaza. Now we can learn more of his story.

1. Chief Petty Officer Harvey Milk, U.S. Navy, circa 1955.

2. Harvey Milk selling raffle tickets at the 1974 Gay Freedom Day Parade Celebration in San Francisco, © 1974 by Don Eckert.

3. Harvey Milk and lover Scott Smith in their Castro Street camera store, © circa 1974 by Marc Cohen.

4. Neighbors Gretchen Payne and her daughter Medora stop for a photo op with Harvey in front of Larry Piet's Valentine's Day window at Castro Camera, © 1977 by Daniel Nicoletta.

5. Harvey Milk speaking at a Union Square rally on the night of the repeal of Dade County, Florida's, protections against discrimination based on sexual preference. Known as Orange Tuesday, this was the first in a series of similar gay and lesbian rights repeals in three other American cities within that same year. The losses galvanized lesbian and gay activists and culminated with the resounding defeat of a similar repeal effort in California called Proposition 6, which would have banned openly gay teachers and created grounds for firing anyone who supported gay teachers, © June 6, 1977 by Jerry Pritikin.

6. Campaign workers greet morning commuter traffic on Market Street at Dolores Street, during Milk's second Supervisorial run. Harvey had a flair for publicity. © 1975 by Leland Toy.

7. Harvey Milk, his lover Jack Lira and other supporters are shown walking from the Castro to City Hall for an Inauguration Ceremony on the steps of City Hall, © January 9, 1978 by Daniel Nicoletta. This is the shot used on the cover of my photo history San Francisco's Castro, Arcadia Press, 2003.

Images 1, 6 and 11 are courtesy of the Harvey Milk Archives - Scott Smith Collection, at the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Studies Center of the San Francisco Public Library.

San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, Daniel Nicoletta and the Department of Public Works created this project.

8. Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone are shown signing a San Francisco City Ordinance banning discrimination in employment based on sexual preference. Mayor Moscone was happy to oblige Milk, the law's author, by signing the ordinance in lavender ink, © 1978 by Efren Ramirez.

9. Harvey Milk and friends clowning around at Harvey's last Castro Street Fair on August 20, 1978, © Rink Foto 1978.

10. Supervisor Harvey Milk as acting Mayor of San Francisco, shown at a ribbon cutting ceremony. Milk quipped, "I am probably the only Mayor who cuts the ribbon and then puts it in his hair, © March 7, 1978 by Daniel Nicoletta.

11. Street flyer calling for a memorial march on November 27, 1978. 40,000 people with candles lit spilled into the entire width and length of Market Street, marching somberly from the Castro district to City Hall in honor of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who were assassinated earlier that day.

Harvey Milk Ceremony Sunday, May 21

Supervisor Bevan Dufty (facing us far right) is master of ceremonies for the unveiling of the Milk photos. Among the speakers are Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Harvey's gay nephew Stuart Milk (facing us in the black shirt).
Here's a close-up of Stuart and Bevan.
On the left in the crowd we see James Patrick Kennedy and Derrick Tynan-Connolly, the Brangelina of the Castro. At the far right in red is director Rob Epstein, who won Oscars for his documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads, about the AIDS Quilt (see www.tellingpictures.com)

Other associates of Harvey Milk in the audience are Hank Wilson, Dennis Peron, John Ryckman, Jim Rivaldo and Harvey's speechwriter, author Frank Robinson, who wrote the book The Towering Inferno.

The closing speaker is photographer Daniel Nicoletta, the moving force behind the project. Dan also announces that the Bob Ross Foundation has kicked in the rest of the money to erect a bronze bust of Harvey Milk in City Hall.
A group of neighborhood housewives, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, offers a blessing.
After the ball.

Jose Sarria Honored Thursday, May 25

Today Jose Sarria Court was dedicated, one block of 16th Street between Market and Sanchez. He also got his name over the door of the Harvey Milk Branch of the Public Library and a bronze plaque in the sidewalk.

Here's a photo of Jose as the Widow Norton. Each year he leads of group to visit Emperor Norton's grave in Colma.

As a drag performer at the Black Cat in the 1950s Jose experienced intense police harassment, but he refused to buckle under and would lead the patrons each night in singing "God Save Us Nelly Queens."

He ran for Supervisor in 1961, collecting an astonishing 5,600 votes and paving the way for Harvey Milk and others.

Today the S.F. Chronicle ran an article by Supervisor Bevan Dufty about Jose. We learn that: "For more than half a century, José Julio Sarria, once dubbed the 'Nightingale of Montgomery Street,' nurtured San Francisco's and America's gay communities through the periods of McCarthyism, the backlash against gay rights and AIDS... Sarria backed Harvey Milk's political campaign for city supervisor, defying the fears of many gay men and lesbian political leaders that Milk's openness would antagonize the city's heterosexual progressive politicians."

Bevan quotes from Michael Robert Gorman's biography of Jose, "The Empress Is a Man" (Haworth Press, 1998): "In 1963, facing ongoing police pressure, the owner of The Black Cat closed the bar. Within a week, police had closed five other gay bars, and by 1964 only 18 of the city's 30 primarily gay and lesbian drinking establishments remained.

"Sarria and the bar owners formed the Tavern Guild and put on San Francisco's first large, public drag ball. More than 500 lesbians and gay men bravely crossed police lines and faced the camera flashes of police photographers to attend this ball, during which Sarria was crowned queen.

"The Tavern Guild began to hold an annual drag ball, marked by the election of a citywide empress to succeed Empress Jose. It developed the bylaws and functions for the Imperial Court of San Francisco, a local charity that raises money for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and other charities through drag shows and other functions. By the early 1970s, similar court systems had been established in Vancouver and Portland, and over the next 40 years individual courts have been established in 66 cities, states or provinces in the United States and Canada."

The photo from the Chronicle article is below.

Click here for the Chron article.

If ever a picture needed no explanation it is this picture.

There's a1997 article by Jeff Jones with Widow Norton photo at http://www.qx.net/jeff/gaylex/jose.htm

We learn: "Jose Sarria today remains as busy as ever attending his children courts' coronation balls throughout the year. Here at these balls, he is not only the Widow Norton, he is "Mama," the title he asks all within the Court to address him by. He also recently made his major motion picture debut via a cameo piece in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Having also been featured in the book, The Mayor of Castro Street, Sarria's biography (as dictated to author Michael Gorman) premieres in the Spring of 1998 titled The Empress Is a Man by Haworth Press. Sarria still lives in his beloved San Francisco. Although he remains the head of the Court system, Sarria has designated his heir to be Empress Nicole the Great of San Diego, his protege and a community activist of his own standing nationwide.

"For over half a century, Jose Sarria, the one-time 'Nightingale of Montgomery Street,' has nurtured, protected and guided San Francisco and North America's gay communities through McCarthyism, the backlash against gay rights, AIDS, and even the occassional bad makeup job. He is truly a living hero and role model for all lesbigaytrans people or anyone who admires courage and optimism against daunting odds."

There are also photos of Jose on http://www.queermusicheritage.com/oct2000.html

Here's Jose arriving for today's ceremony. His name over the Library door is still covered.

Here's the edge of the crowd, with the genial Dr. John Newmeyer, in light pants, right in the center. At the time I didn't know Jose had made his motion picture debut in John's sister's picture, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.

John tells me he's raised the $15,000 fee to get his sister a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and now we're waiting to hear if it's been accepted.

Here's John with his sister in younger days.

Here's a publicity still from when Miss Julie played the original Catwoman on TV, signed recently, "To Strange, You're a love, Julie Newmar."

Here are John and Miss Julie at John's home in November 2005. But I digress.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty (r) introduces Police Chief Heather Fong and Treasurer Jose Cisneros, who lead the pledge of allegiance.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano gets off a few zingers.

Karen Sundheim, Library Branch Manager, says a few words.

Next up is Empress Nicole the Great of San Diego, Jose's protege and a community activist of nationwide standing.

Jose himself takes the rostrum, recounting his life from the time he entered the military in 1941 and fought in World War II.

He introduces the fellow in the cowboy hat as a leader of the Sacramento Imperial Court and the two ladies as his (Jose's) nieces.

The famous Donna Sachet snaps away.

Here's Jose's street sign just before it's uncovered.


Here's Jose with his nieces after the unveiling. What a great day!

However, Harvey Milk has one more card to play. He has the Castro's Rainbow Flag, representing all people, from gay to straight and back again, flying over Harvey Milk Plaza.

So maybe Harvey wins for now, but Jose is still alive, and who knows what he'll do in the future.

Meanwhile, across the street ...

Above the Cafe Flore the Svedka Vodka billboard "toasts all same-sex couples celebrating 25 years of legally wedded bliss."

Click to see my photo history of San Francisco's Castro.


Heck, you might as well check out all my books.

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