San Francisco Opera | Memories of José Sarria: Where Opera Meets Activism As told to San Francisco Opera

Memories of José Sarria: Where Opera Meets Activism

He was Carmen. Aida. Marguerite. Madama Butterfly. And one of the pioneering figures in America’s struggle for LGBTQ rights.

The late José Julio Sarria toppled barriers with his historic run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first known openly gay man to run for public office. The year was 1961. San Francisco was arresting gay men, raiding bars they frequented and leaking their identities to the press. But Sarria’s candidacy forced the San Francisco political establishment to acknowledge the gay community not as a menace but as a political force — paving the way for politicians like Harvey Milk.

When he wasn’t running for public office, Sarria could be found serenading at the Black Cat Café, a bohemian haunt on Montgomery Street. There, he reinterpreted opera’s greatest hits as farce, using arias as a vehicle to share tips about where the police might strike next.

Local historian Gerard Koskovich grew close to Sarria in the last decades of his life, and he recently sat down to share stories about his friend, a legend in the fight for gay rights. The following are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

EXILED FROM TIME

I very much felt as a young person that I was exiled from time, that the family stories I heard and the histories I heard in school and the things I saw in museums and historical societies — that I didn’t exist in any of those places.

And so I started asking myself, where might I find those stories of the past that might speak to me as a young gay person? So very early on, as I started meeting LGBTQ people, I looked around for who’s the oldest person in the room and went and asked them questions.

José, of course, was a person I knew of as a figure from history. When I came to Stanford for graduate school in 1979, I started to learn a lot more about the Bay Area’s history and really got a sense of some of José’s importance there.

Shortly after I moved to San Francisco, I had a chance to meet José and hear some of his stories and record some of his stories. And he told me great stories. As soon as he got his driver’s license when he was 16, he would cruise the El Camino on the Mid-Peninsula to look around and pick up men, because there were parts of the El Camino strip where men were hanging around waiting for someone to drive by and pick them up.

And there was a Stanford professor who was his chief competition. He would see him driving his car, and ultimately they pulled over and talked to each other and agreed to split up the week so they wouldn’t be competing with each other.

That was José as a teenager, already utterly irrepressible. And very entrepreneurial, I might add! He was gonna get some, and he was going to work out a deal for it to be done efficiently and effectively. Even at that age, you could see José operating with the skills that would take him through life.

THE GRAND TOUR

I can remember the first time I visited him at his apartment along Lower Nob Hill, the Tendernob. I had a friend who was doing some interviews with him and thinking about possibly doing a biography of José, a project that never was completed. And so we went over to interview José one afternoon at his apartment and got the grand tour.

His apartment was astonishing. Every square inch was covered with antique clocks, collector’s plates, paintings, drawings, etchings, needlepoint. He then took us into the basement of the building. It was quite a large early 1930s apartment building that probably had 30 or 40 units, so the basement was gigantic, and José had claimed a third or more of it.

One wall was wardrobes of his costumes. There were a dozen or more filing cabinets full of his archives. Trunks and trunks of memorabilia. When I talk about José having a sense of his legacy and being an actor in history? He kept everything. Every shred of paper. Every costume. Every photograph. Quite astonishing. All his materials are now at the GLBT Historical Society.

But clearly from early, early in his life, José had a sense of being an imperial personage. Archives and artifacts and memorabilia would become part of the patrimony of the state. José had that attitude about himself ever since he was a child, which is unusual for queer people, to be so self-possessed and have so much a sense of being a person who was going to make history and whose story had to be preserved.

José told many extremely incredible stories. And all of them, I could find documentation. Or historians have been able to go and find independent documentation. The stories turn out to be correct! He’s not gilding the lily.

BOYS IN BERLIN

He always told the story that he was too short to get into the army during World War II. Because he was quite short. And that he went to the recruiting office and picked up the recruiter and slept with him. That’s how he convinced him to let him into the army. He traded a little favor and got into the United States Army in World War II and ultimately was moved off into one of the units that didn’t see a lot of combat, one of the more clerical and entertainment units where José had a grand time.

He was part of the United States Army that was among the first units into Berlin after it had been liberated by the Soviets a few days after the fall of the Nazi regime, and then stayed there for two and a half years as part of the Army occupation.

And by the end of World War II, the United States military was very actively engaged in mass witch hunts to kick out gay and lesbian soldiers.

José managed to survive that and continue serving for another two and a half years at the point where they were actively trying to get rid of queers.

At the same time, he was running around in Berlin, sleeping with everybody who would sit still for him. And hanging out with all these artists and theater directors. He was very involved in a crowd of young German theatrical types.

When I visited him about six months before his death to help organize the rest of his archives and shift them over to the historical society, he got out an album of photographs and said, “Oh yes, I was running around with all these folks. What was that German boy who became a famous actor that I was spending so much time with?”

He pulls out this photo of this unbelievably gorgeous German twink who I don’t recognize. And he turns it over and it’s inscribed to him. It’s Klaus Kinski at the age of 17 or 18, the great actor who’s in Aguirre, the Wrath of God and all the great Herzog films. Klaus Kinski, one of the great and now controversial German actors who was a teenager when José was running around with him in 1946, ’47, in Berlin.

BECOMING THE NIGHTINGALE

Then he came back to the United States and wanted to train as a teacher and got arrested in the men’s room at the bar in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, accused of trying to pick up a man for sex. Now, José, when he told that story, would always say, “And the worst part is, I wasn’t even trying to pick somebody up!”

That was the end of his plans to be a teacher, to pursue a teaching career. So he started working in the hospitality industry, particularly in restaurants.

And soon enough, José was the Nightingale of Montgomery Street.

We can certainly point to when he first started performing his weekly Sunday operas at the Black Cat in the mid-1950s. And at the historical society, in José’s papers, there are voluminous files of marked-up opera scores and librettos where he is editing the score to a version he could perform briefly at the Black Cat, where he’s rewriting the lyrics to make them funny and to give them a kind of political zing and to indicate a kind of right to exist as a queer person.

And of course, José always wanted to embody the greatest diva in the greatest opera. So he was Aida. He was Carmen. He was Madama Butterfly. He was always the most famous diva in the most famous opera because no other role would be appropriate to José’s grandeur and stature and gravitas and importance as a performer and as a person.

DRAWING COURAGE FROM OPERA

I visited him shortly before his death and he took me to a storage unit where he probably had 20 trunks full of costumes. It was quite staggering. He had kept every costume ever.

He and his colleagues made them. And occasionally, looking at them closely, they were quite telling.

There was one that was sort of an 18th-century Marie Antoinette gown with big puff sleeves. And under the puff sleeve, holding it up on each side was a canvas band.

And looking at them, they were stenciled. They were straps from José’s World War II duffel bag which he had in Berlin and which he repurposed in making this dress.

It’s very clear that many of the great diva roles in the grand operas must fight against impossible odds, whose deep well of overwhelming love is thwarted and leads them to doom. We can see that this is the narrative of gay men in the 20th century and the ways that they tried to live their lives — the ways that they tried to build lives for themselves. That there’s an enormous resonance between those stories.

And there’s a kind of political subtext in all of them that resistance is important. That carrying on with nobility and courage is important. And that having fabulous outfits and incredible hair and really good music and an audience is important. José did all of those things.

At the Intersection of Opera and Drag, Artists Look to the Future
A Cloak of Happiness and Sorrow: Puccini’s Glorious Triptych