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José Sarria, 90, gay advocate and performer

Broke ground running for office in San Francisco

Mr. Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961.

New York Times/file 2005

Mr. Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961.

NEW YORK — José Sarria, a drag performer and gay rights advocate who many historians contend was the first openly gay person to campaign for public office in the United States when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, died last Monday at his home in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M. He was 90.

The cause was adrenal cancer, said Gerard Koskovich, a friend and a spokesman for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

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Mr. Sarria worked as a waiter and performed at the Black Cat Cafe, a gay bar in the North Beach section of San Francisco, in the 1950s and ’60s. His campy satires of operas like “Carmen,” performed in elaborate regalia and makeup, made him a standout in the city’s gay neighborhoods and a de facto community leader. Laws against sodomy were in place throughout the United States at the time. In California, bars serving homosexuals could legally be raided and their patrons arrested. Mr. Sarria helped found civic groups to fight discrimination against gay people. His frustration with the system led to his run for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, the legislative body for the city and county of San Francisco.

He borrowed a suit for campaign photos and ran under the watchword “Equality!” He came in ninth out of a field of more than 30 candidates for five spots on the board and received more than 5,000 votes.

“From that day on,” Mr. Sarria said, “there’s never been a politician in San Francisco, not even a dogcatcher, that did not go and talk to the gay community.”

Mr. Sarria helped found the League for Civil Education, a group dedicated to overturning laws that prohibited serving alcohol to gay people, in 1960; and the Society for Individual Rights, a broader gay advocacy and community group, in 1963. He worked at the Black Cat until it closed in 1963.

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