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José Sarria Makes Historic Bid for Public Office

José Julio Sarria
José Julio Sarria

Fed up with police abuse, José Julio Sarria, aka “the Widow Norton,” a famous drag performer at Black Cat Café and founder of the Imperial Court, ran for San Francisco Supervisor in 1961. He was the first out LGBTQ person to ever run for public office in the United States. Sarria garnered roughly 6,000 votes in a citywide election with thirty-four candidates, demonstrating to shocked politicians that there was a consolidated LGBTQ constituency. Although he lost, Sarria’s campaign brought visibility to the plight of San Francisco’s queer community and inspired generations of LGBTQ people to run for office.

Sarria campaign announcement. Courtesy Jose Sarria Foundation.

Sarria campaign event. Courtesy Jose Sarria Foundation

Stonewall Rebellion Marks Turning Point

Vice squads–police units devoted to “cleaning up” undesirable parts of urban life–routinely raided the bars frequented by LGBTQ people. Laws against people of the same sex dancing together or wearing clothing made for the opposite sex were used as justification to arrest patrons. By the 1960s in New York City, the mafia owned many of these establishments and its members would bribe officers in order to avoid fines. Sometimes the arrangement meant that patrons would be forewarned of a pending raid in time to change their clothing and stop dancing. That wasn’t true during the early morning hours of June 28 1969, when the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. 

When they arrived at Stonewall, the police locked the doors so that no one could escape as they conducted arrests. As certain patrons were released, they joined a large crowd that had been gathering outside the bar. Those chosen for arrest started resisting the police officers with the encouragement of the jeering crowd. Violence broke out and the crowd overwhelmed police, who were forced to call in reinforcements. The conflict lasted into the next day as more and more people joined the riots from around the Village as word spread. 

The Stonewall Rebellion marked a turning point for the LGBTQ community, demonstrating that LGBTQ people could and would fight against injustice, and serving as inspiration for many who would later run for office.

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