By David-Elijah Nahmod, May 2015 Issue.
Looking back on his life today, it might be difficult for people to fully comprehend how courageous and groundbreaking José Julio Sarria truly was.
As early as the 1950s, Sarria (1922-2013) was out and proud. As a popular drag performer at San Francisco’s The Black Cat, he mentored many young gay men during a time when sitting in a gay bar could get patrons arrested on moral charges.
Sarria went on to become the first openly gay man in the United States to run for public office. His campaign for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors commenced in 1961, more than 15 years before Harvey Milk was elected to the board.
Though he didn’t win the election, he garnered the attention of the press and got more votes than anyone thought he would.
And, when Sarria passed away in 2013, many gay men attributed him as the first person to tell them it was OK to be who they were.
Sarria’s life is now going to be honored and remembered in Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of José Julio Sarria, an upcoming documentary from openly gay filmmaker Dante Alencastre.
Alencastre, a native of Lima, Peru, who currently lives in Los Angeles, spoke to Echo about what the project and Sarria’s legacy mean to him.
“I have always been drawn to storytelling, which began in my college days and continues today,” Alencastre said. “I am especially drawn to people’s stories which are often underrepresented in the media. Nonconformity has been a trademark of my story telling, and I like pushing the boundaries and rattling the cages of the established structures.”
Alencastre also said that he looks for the “defiance, and the resilience” of individuals who are not considered part of the mainstream LGBT communities.
“It’s my goal to preserve and reclaim our queer stories for the present and future generations of gender nonconforming, gender queer and trans youth,” he said.
Alencastre’s film, now in production, will tell the story of Sarria’s life through home movie footage provided by Joe Castel, Sarria’s friend who serves as the film’s executive producer.
In addition to his run for office, the film will recall Sarria’s service during World War II and his lifelong refusal to conform to what was expected of him.
“As a feminine-identified gay man, José’s life teachings and defiant stance inspired me to embrace my feminine ways with pride and to find courage in his life lessons,” Alencastre said.
The filmmaker pointed out that during Sarria’s lifetime, being openly gay was frowned upon not only by mainstream society, but by gay men and lesbians who lived their lives deep in the closet. It was during these times that Sarria proudly labeled himself a nelly queen.
“José is as important today as he was back in 1961 when he ran for office,” Alencastre said. “Nelly Queen is not just an LGBT history lesson, it’s a triumphant story of the human spirit – a hero’s journey of a man fighting unjust laws and uniting a fractured community. José stands as a courageous role model to people still struggling with their sexual identity and self esteem.”