Queens of the Desert

9.26.2007

By

We always love it when our writers rain glory on us, so a very hearty congratulations to Out magazine contributing writer Michael Joseph Gross who won first and second place in the feature writing category of this year's National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association Excellence in Journalism Awards. The following piece, which won first place, originally ran in the April 2007 issue of the magazine. We've reprinted it here in case you missed it the first time around.

On the crucifix worn by Empress I Jose, the Widow Norton -- squat, regal, 83 years old, and known out of drag as Jose Sarria -- Christ's hands and feet are studded with diamonds.

Maybe you haven't heard of Jose. In 1961, eight years before Stonewall, he became the first openly gay man in the United States to run for public office, losing his race for San Francisco city supervisor. Three years later he founded the Imperial Court System, a campy grassroots charity group that's still going strong and has spawned more than 50 chapters around North America. As a female impersonator Jose headlined San Francisco's Black Cat Caf' from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, during which time he was a one-man foil to the city's vice squad. When plainclothes officers entered the bar he welcomed them with a round of applause. On Halloween he passed out I Am a Boy labels to men in drag so that police wouldn't be able to arrest them for 'intent to deceive.' To the tune of 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' Jose sang, 'God Save Us, Nelly Queens.'

Back for a moment to Jesus -- or, really, to his diamonds.

'Three carats! This was given to me by a lovely gangster from Providence,' Jose chatters, smoothing the front of his red silk gown while being groomed for a banquet by Bruce Crawford, a.k.a. 'Sheila,' his 80-year-old lady-in-waiting. (Sheila looks like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? but vastly more terrifying because marginally more self-aware.)

When I ask what size his dress was, Jose frowns. 'Size 20,' he says. 'But I used to be a 12.'

Seeming to struggle inwardly, looking at the wall, he adds, 'Or a 14.'

I went to the desert to visit the queens: gay men in their late 60s, 70s, and 80s, older than gay liberation, now spending their retirement years in Palm Springs, Calif. They grew up in an age when coming out involved inevitable risk, when if you touched a man's knee in a bar, you were liable to end up under arrest. Jose often refers to himself and his peers as 'old queens,' one of many names they've been called in their day. I wanted to try calling them a different name, though. I wondered if they might be saints.

On meeting these men it seemed I'd discovered a world of wall-to-wall Auntie Mames: glamorous, funny, inspiring, and bold. For gay men, I thought, these old queens might be examples, as saints are to Catholics, of how to be more fully human, how to live with true grace.

Talking about them with a man from the next generation, Cleve Jones, who founded the AIDS Memorial Quilt (and who at age 53 practically ranks as chicken in Palm Springs), I ask what one quality his gay forefathers had in common. 'Dignity,' he answers, dignity rooted in an experience that 'is hard for anyone under 40 to understand.' When they came out, he says, 'those queens knew that they were participating in something that had never happened before. You didn't have to be smart, you didn't have to be educated, you didn't have to be political to know that you were experiencing something that was brand-new. And they did manage to accomplish quite a bit, even in the face of overwhelming persecution. You have to give them that: They have courage.'

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