The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

to honor the life + advance the legacy of Emperor Norton

The Emperor & His Widow

By the time José Sarria (1922–2013) was brought to Woodlawn cemetery, in Colma, Calif., in 1976, to visit the grave of Emperor Norton, he already was a legend. With his 1961 campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Sarria — a very popular drag entertainer in the city — had become the first openly gay person to run for public office in the United States. In 1965, he had proclaimed himself "Her Royal Majesty, Empress of San Francisco, José I, The Widow Norton" and had founded the Imperial Court of San Francisco, now the "mother court" of the Imperial Court system, a worldwide LGBT network of community service and charitable organizations.

Photo: John Lumea.

Photo: John Lumea.

Shortly after the 1976 visit to the Emperor's grave, Sarria purchased an adjacent burial plot and commissioned a headstone that was a mirror image of Emperor Norton's own rose-granite slab dedicated upon the Emperor's reburial at Woodlawn in 1934. (At left: The two headstones on Emperor Norton Day 2015, the 135th anniversary of the Emperor's death on 8 January 1880.)

 

On Sunday 15 February 2015, the Imperial Court's 40th anniversary procession to the graves of Emperor Norton and José Sarria, the Widow Norton, gets underway. Photo: Rick Gerharter.

The 1976 visit turned out to be the beginning of an annual pilgrimage, now one of the highlights of the Imperial Court year, which — until very recently — featured Sarria, "the Widow Norton," leading a procession to the graves of her and her "husband."

Three Sundays ago, on 15 February, a number of us from The Emperor's Bridge Campaign arrived at Woodlawn shortly after 8 a.m. — a crystal-clear morning — and attended the 40th anniversary of the pilgrimage, led with great elegance and humor by Imperial Council of San Francisco board member and Absolute Empress XXX, Donna Sachet.

Especially touching on the occasion were the keynote remarks of Rev. Lyle Beckman of the San Francisco Night Ministry, a nonprofit, founded in 1964, that "provides crisis intervention, counseling and referral services every night of the year."

On Sunday 15 February 2015, the Rev. Lyle Beckman of San Francisco Night Ministry offers keynote remarks at the Imperial  Court's 40th anniversary pilgrimage to the graves  of Emperor Norton and José Sarria, the Widow Norton. Photo: John Blackburn.

On Sunday 15 February 2015, the Rev. Lyle Beckman of San Francisco Night Ministry offers keynote remarks at the Imperial  Court's 40th anniversary pilgrimage to the graves  of Emperor Norton and José Sarria, the Widow Norton. Photo: John Blackburn.

In his remarks, Rev. Beckman highlighted the parallels between José Sarria, the Widow Norton, and Emperor Norton. Here is what he said:

As always, Night Ministry is honored to participate in this annual pilgrimage. I’m usually going to bed around this time, and, from the looks of many of you in the crowd, you might regularly say the same. Allow me to introduce our Minister of Sacred Space, the Rev. Diana Wheeler, and representatives of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

It is entirely fitting that we, citizens of this realm, should on this day remember the life of Joshua Abraham Norton or, more appropriately, Emperor Norton I of these United States and Protector of Mexico.

It is also fitting that we remember and honor his lovely wife, Empress José, the Widow Norton. While many years separated them — she evidently liked her daddies as well as her boys — they really shared many things in common.

Emperor Norton, born in London in 1819, became increasingly disgruntled with what he considered to be inadequacies of the legal and political structures of San Francisco, the State of California and the United States of America. So, on September 17, 1859, Norton took matters into his own hands by declaring himself Emperor.

In the name of God, he also issued his own treasury certificates; corresponded with Presidents, Kings and Queens; abolished Congress; dissolved the Republic; and banned both the Democratic and Republican parties, all over a 21-year period.

Is it any wonder that our José was rather smitten by this charming yet powerful Emperor? I’m not sure it was love at first sight — however, they soon discovered how much they had in common, and love blossomed.

Politics for example. While Norton circumvented the more traditional electoral process to become Emperor, our José Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for public office in a major U.S. city when she ran for San Francisco Supervisor in 1961.

They had a love of music in common: Emperor Norton regularly attended operas and concerts in the city, walking comfortably among the city’s elite and refined. But, mostly, the Emperor “marched to his own drummer, and everyone else pretended they could hear the music just because they wanted to be a part of the band” (Pat Sweeney).

On the other hand, our José, also known as the “Nightingale of Montgomery Street,” had an accomplished career as singer and performer, whose repertoire ranged from classic opera arias and parodies of operas to her theme anthem: “God Save Us Nellie Queens.”

And sadly, they had police harassment in common. In 1867, a police officer arrested Norton to commit him involuntarily as being insane. The arrest outraged the citizens of San Francisco. The Chief of Police speedily ordered Norton released and issued a formal apology. As a result, all police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted Norton as he passed by.

José fought against police harassment as well. When raids on gay bars were routine and arrests followed, José encouraged men to plead not guilty and demand a jury trial. Following her advice, more and more gay men began demanding jury trials, so that court dockets were overloaded and judges began expecting that prosecutors have actual evidence against the accused before going to trial. The numbers of arrests went down dramatically.

Both have things named after them. Emperor Norton has a lounge on Larkin Street, while the Widow Norton has a street named for her in the Castro neighborhood.

And both appear in books — Emperor Norton, in various histories of San Francisco; and the Widow Norton, in such books as Hermaphrodieties, by trans author Raven Kaldera, where various gods and goddesses from every culture and every age that are neither or both male and female are discussed. José appears in the chapter called “Tricksters,” the ones who help us laugh through the pain. These holy ones comfortably change genders to stir things up, turn things upside down, open minds and change the world, using humor, satire and irony among other things to make it happen. Certainly something that Mama José has done well.

And so it is that we gather together today, to comfort and support each other as we remember Emperor Norton and José Julio Sarria, the Widow Norton, and to recall with pride the journey on which we all have come — some of us for 50 years.

It is traditional for us, at this time and in this place, to remember with love and affection those monarchs who have died and who are now complete and at rest in our creator’s loving care.

[Here, the names of 23 Absolute Empresses and 16 “Emperors after Norton” were read, accompanied by a chime for each name.]

God of grace and glory, we thank you for those we name — for their life, their love, their witness, their creative imagination, their courage and their service. May the gifts that they shared with us be transformed and renewed in us so that future generations may continue to benefit from all they held dear. Amen.

It is also tradition for us to present a charge to our newest monarchs. Empress Khmera Rouge and Emperor Kevin Lisle, your royal majesties: We congratulate you as you ascend your thrones.

You are now part of a long and noble line of royalty which was born in the anguish of arrests made at the Raid on California Hall in 1965 and empowered by the Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966. Out of those traumatic moments and many others in our history, the Queer community withstood insults to dignity and was galvanized into a new unity which is still connected to your reign.

As you begin your reign, I bid you: Carry in your memory the good work of your royal predecessors. Strive to incorporate some of the good qualities of Joshua Abraham Norton and José Julio Sarria into your reign. Find new ways to educate and reach out to all of San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo Counties. Work tirelessly for the rights of all people. Raise lots of money for the agencies and organizations that you support. Inspire us, make us laugh and sing, give us hope in these challenging days, and allow us to help you accomplish your goals, for it is our pleasure to serve you.

And to you, José, our dear mother and friend, we miss you, we love you, and we thank you for creating the Imperial Court System 50 years ago. We remember with gratitude all that you have done for each of us, for our community, for San Francisco, and for sexual and gender rights everywhere.

Thank you for teaching us, sometimes scolding us, and making us laugh. Thank you for your generosity, and for helping us to see the world in a new and vibrant way.

Thank you for giving us the hope that the world can change, and the hope that with hard work, determination, compassion and love, our dreams might be fulfilled.

Long live Emperor Norton and Empress José!

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