“They always forget the ones who were first,” someone says in voiceover in Joe Castel’s remarkable documentary, Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of José Sarria. After watching this essential record of an important life in the LGBTQ+ community, I doubt anyone will forget him. Sarria’s list of accomplishments include establishing the Imperial Court System, serving as Staff Sergeant during World War II, reigning as a Drag Queen at the Black Cat Cafe, and, perhaps most significantly, running as the first openly gay American for public office in 1961.
Born in 1922, Sarria grew up at a time where homosexuality was not only frowned upon, it was illegal. Still, he never pretended to be anything other than who he was, a nelly queen. He dressed up in his mother’s clothing, and because he possessed an inner confidence, he found acceptance. Remember, this is before Stonewall, where the possibilities for out gay people included incarceration, electroshock therapy, condemnation, and murder. The names we’re all familiar with like Harvey Milk, and Larry Kramer, stand on the shoulders of José Sarria. This documentary traces his entire life in a linear fashion, checking off one amazing feat after another.
Although this results in a mostly very ordinary presentation, complete with Ken Burns-style zooms on photos, a plethora of archival footage, and plenty of standard talking heads, the film stands out in many ways. First and foremost, Castel filmed Sarria for over twenty years, a feat which should cause any film lover to stand on top of a chair and respectfully slow clap. Because of his access, Castel also allows Sarria to tell his own story, some of which hilariously consists of him in full widow drag as he leads a tour bus through the history of San Francisco Queer Culture. As such, we really get to know this incredible human being with his never-ending sardonic wit, fearlessness, and compassion. At times, Castel’s own voice can be heard off camera, and some of my favorite moments occur when their banter reveals their mutual affection. This may feel like standard issue filmmaking, but you can’t deny Castel’s ability to bring Sarria to life and allow generations to come to fall in love.
As a bonus, we also learn about other important San Francisco figures, such as Sol Stoumen, the owner of the Black Cat Cafe, which became the first establishment in San Francisco to cater to a gay clientele. Although straight, Stoumen’s support of the community, especially giving Sarria a place to perform most nights of the week, made him an early ally in our history.
Sarria brought gay people together, famously saying, “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.” Often living in his own fantasy bubble by pretending to be the royal widow of a long dead prince, his rich inner life led to the establishment of the Imperial Court System in 1965, a drag community which continues to raise millions of dollars for charities all across the country. As busy as he was, he also managed to find the love of his life, Jimmy Moore. Again, remember this was before gay bars existed, before Grindr, Tindr, or even Match.com!
The last third of the film really snuck up on me as it covers a tragic downward spiral in Sarria’s life. Despite having a street named after him in his beloved hometown, fate had other things in store for him. Through it all, however, Sarria keeps up his fantastic sense of humor and need to spread joy, yet I found myself weeping for this purest of souls who wanted so badly to be remembered. On my next trip to San Francisco, I cannot wait to find that stretch of 16th Street in the Castro at Pond, in front of the Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library, and pay my respects at José Sarria Court.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Nelly Queen: The Life And Times of José Sarria is currently playing as part of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival and can be accessed until August 29th via OutfestLA2020.com .