Chapter 1: When dirt was new, and some drag queen decided it might make a nice facial mask
It's not all about Mama José, but great parts might as well be. Mama José really is a legend in her own time. If only a quarter of the stories she tells were true, she would still be a formidable queen. There's plenty to back all of them up, though. Even the really crazy ones.
Back in the 40's and 50's, a young gay man named José Sarria made a name for himself hosting and doing drag at a gay bar/restaurant in San Francisco called "The Black Cat." The Black Cat closed when the staff and ownership finally got tired of fighting with the state, city and county regulators, which is what it took to keep a gay bar open at the time. Afterwards, José still kept his hand in and stayed in contact with the fledgling Tavern Guild, an association of SF gay bar owners that formed in the early sixties. He also ran for County Supervisor in 1961, the first openly gay man (and definitely the first drag queen) to run for public office anywhere.
In 1965, the Tavern Guild sponsored a drag ball where José was offered the crown of queen of the ball. She took it, saying something to the effect of "I've been a queen all of my life," put the crown on her own head and declared herself "Empress of San Francisco." The Tavern Guild turned this into an annual ball, electing and crowning a new Empress every year.
There's some parallel stuff going on in Portland at this time, too. In 1958, Queen Samuel of the Court of Transylvania declared herself Monarch of Portland. Only lasted a little over a year, but in 1966 they started electing "Rose Queens" twice a year.
Note: This was all pre-Stonewall. There was gay life before Stonewall.
San Jose comes into the picture in 1970, electing our first Empress (or "Reina" as we referred to them back then) of Casa de San Jose, the first "new" Imperial Court to follow San Francisco. Shortly after that, Portland elected its first "Rose Empress" and Vancouver, BC elected the first Empress of Canada (well, after Queen Victoria). Amongst protocol wonks you'll hear arguments (pretty much worn out by now) who has the oldest court. Don't worry too much about it. The nice thing is at coronations where courts are presented in order of first reign (sometimes jokingly referred to as "age before beauty") we walk really early.
But let's get back to Mama José. By 1974, Empress José had declared herself José, Empress Norton I, the Widow Norton, wife to the late Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
So here's your ancient history lesson. Joshua Abraham Norton was a San Francisco businessman who lost his fortune in a bad business deal in the 1850s. He went a bit crazy, hid away from the world for 5 years, and when he re-emerged proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States (he added "Protector of Mexico" later). Emperor Norton was a classy nutcase, though. Breezing through San Francisco high society, dressed to the nines in a military uniform appropriate to an Emperor, and without a dime to his name most of the time, he was loved by the city. He was loved to the point that many businesses accepted his personal currency. He died in 1880, some forty years before José's birth.
The Sunday morning after San Francisco Coronation 1974, Mama José and a few other drag queens got into a limo with their escorts and were chauffeured to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma to visit the grave of Emperor Norton, beginning a 30 year tradition. Not to buck a trend, the cemetery directors (including a former Mayor of SF and a California Superior Court Judge) quietly welcomed them back after the first year, providing coffee, danish, and a place for the visitors to assemble before walking up the hill to the grave-site.
Keep that ever in mind.
We're playing an old and very silly game here. We're following the vision of a short little hispanic drag queen with unbelievable chutzpah, walking in the footsteps of a nearly 200 year old San Francisco street person. Whatever you might say of either of them, both have made their place in the world with grace and style. It's up to us to maintain a sense of both the ridiculous and sublime.