Before Stonewall there was the Black Cat !  

Before Stonewall there was the Black Cat !
Jose J. Sarria, a drag Queen, also called Empress José, and early fighter for gay rights in San Francisco, long before the famous Stonewall events. He was in Berlin to take part in the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee by Magnus Hirschfeld and friends. We had a long conversation with him over a late breakfast. His memories remind us how much the gay movement owes these activists of the early period.
Published in a shorter version in Die Andere Welt, July 1997

José not in drag

C.M-S.: What was the „Black Cat“?

José: There were no gay bars in San Francisco then. The Black Cat was a fine and quiet Bohemian Bar. It was situated in the Barbary Coast area, which was the port area of the city.

You could simply have drink there, sing a song or recite a poem. In the Black Cat artist exhibited their paintings – that made the Black Cat famous! Then came the war. Suddenly there were five men to each woman. The military authorities became nervous about homosexuality and one of the first things they did was to set up street lighting in the parks.

So that the customers would not be molested by the military police(MPs), Stuman put up a notice: No admission for military personnel.  Then if someone in a uniform came, he sent them home and told them to come back in civvies. Then, if MPs came, he pointed at the sign and said –“The others are not allowed in. Neither are you.”

Since the original owner of the Black Cat was a German with the name of Habenichts, and he was not a US-Citizen, and was not allowed to own a bar, Saul Stuman, - his bookkeeper - took over the licence.

C.M-S.: You said that you performed mini operas in the „Black Cat“ …

José: At the beginning I was simply a customer. Then I met a young man – the bar-boy and we had a relationship for  nine year. I was the cocktail waiter and welcomed the people as they came into the bar. So Saul said to me, “You can be the hostess of the Black Cat.”

In the Black Cat artist would exhibit their paintings – and that made the Black Cat famous!. At that time you could buy a painting for five Dollars. Or sometimes an artist would come in, lay his pictures out, and I’d say perhaps, “Come, Have a drink on me!”, and the artist would say, “Take that picture then!”

The picture, which is hanging in, the exhibition here in Berlin is from Alex Anderson. He was as gay as a nut and fruitcake. He worked for some time on Broadway by the early musical shows with Lerner.[1] He was a stage and costume designer.

An Empress complete with make-up


C.M-S.: But we’ve wandered off the point ...

José.: I began doing the operas in 1955, and really read the riot act to the customers too. During the day they were neatly dressed as Mr. Jones’ in creased trousers with a case and worked in the banks, and at night they were Mary Smith. Everyone could see – That’s a queen. Only they believed that no-one noticed it. I only did what they would also liked to have done, but they didn’t have the courage.

Then a new department was set up in the city, the Alcoholic Beverage Control (= ABC) Unit. What they decided was the law. Saul Stuman resisted them to the point of  court proceedings – sometimes he even one the cases. However, he often had to appeal. The truth is that the ABC had declared war on Stuman.

We had a small network which linked the few existing bars. I would get a call: “He is tall, small specs, is wearing a raincoat, and is from the ABC.” So when I saw him coming to the door I would say “Hazel, We have a visitor! Play something nice!” – and she played ,,When the saints come marching in!" Of course, everyone turned round to see who it was. The ABC hated me.

On one occasion I was so mad with the ABC, that I said,  “Hazel, Play the National Anthem!”

Everyone stood up and saluted. The official was naturally very angry and said, “I'll have your ass!“  To which I replied,  “And it will be the best ass you ever had!” He turned round and flounced out. 

The „potted operas“ (Aida in 30 minutes with a gay content! C.M-S) were performed on Sundays in order to pull the people into the bar. In this way we raised the money for the defence in the courts.

I got only 5 dollars for each performance. One day an entertainer told me, “You should be in the labor union!” So I joined the Actors Club. My pay shot up from five to 150 dollars for each performance. Saul said to me, “Get out! Go where they will pay you such money!” – Which I did. However, customers came to the Black Cat and demanded to know where I was. “He doesn’t work here any more!” So the people left. After one month Saul came to where I was working and said, “I’ll pay you the money! Just come back, dammit! You are the Black Cat.!” I went back to work there and stayed until it closed down.

C.M-S.: You mentioned court cases. What were they about ?

José: Around 1959 they tried to introduce a new regulation, according to which it was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals.  But how do you tell who to serve and who not? What does a gay look like?

Saul took up the fight in court again. Our lawyer was a Jewish Gentleman named LeMorris Lowenthal who could talk like Clarence Darrow.[2]

He hit on the idea of inviting the judge to decide which person should be served and which not. We had already told those who couldn’t control their “wrists” to sit on their hands. In addition, we had agreed in the Black Cat to appear in “normal” clothes. So we got ourselves up fine, borrowed serious clothing, sat their looking like the all-American College-boy with short haircuts. The judge decided it was impossible to decide who was gay and who not – therefore it was impossible to operate the law – it could not be carried out. We danced for joy in the court-room. Then we went back to the Black Cat to celebrate.

Almost without noticing it, I became a leader of the Gay Community. The officials in City Hall turned to us in order to communicate with the gay community. My  step-parents, who brought me up, belonged to a very old Californian family of early settlers. The name of Sarria was well-known. When I put up for the post of Member of the Board of Supervisors, I was already not an unknown factor. I adopted the election slogan “United we’ll win, divided they’ll get us one after the other !” – And if the community had stuck together I would have won the election. I almost did it anyway.

C.M-S: When was that ?

José: The ABC created a regulation that said if you applied for a licence you had to give up the one you had, during the application. But how can you earn money to carry on the fight, when you’ve had to surrender the licence? At the same time, we were tired of fighting for people who didn’t give us much support. The apathy was enormous. The Black Cat shut down at Halloween, and in November five others closed down. – Gay bars I mean. In the Golden Period – around 1955 to the early sixties -, there were 150 Gay Bars in San Francisco, 25 Bath-houses and 15 Sex-Shops

C.M-S: So what happened –

José: The people all went their own ways…

In the meantime, a group of bar owners and workers had founded the Tavern-Gild organisation. At their second Ball (1965) the decided to honour me fore the work that I had done in the past years, and I was named the Ballroom Queen. I called myself the Empress José, the Widow Norton – and as such I founded the System of Courts. The people saw that we worked hard and collected money for charity purposes – and they wanted to do so too. The first model court following mine, was set up in British Columbia, in Vancouver. Today there are 75  courts and they are the biggest collector for gay Charity Funding Organisations. In New York they bring in a lot of money for the community centre. They also collect money for the Aids-Hospice to be able to offer a stipend. They were also the first who helped the Aids victims  in San Francisco

José: I lived in Phoenix Arizona, (presumably later - C.M-S) in a very swanky area with lots of old wealthy queens. I was notorious.

At that time they had a man running for Governor who was an asshole. I would have gone out and campaigned against him. Later he embezzled money out of savings and loans. He was a crook.

I went to a cocktail party with lots of queens – everyone greeted me – the man from San Francisco. I asked what they were trying to do to get M. impeached. Oh, we’re not doing anything about that. He’ll go a way. I said to them you’re like a bunch of ostriches. You’ve got your head in the sand, your ass in the air, and you’re all gonna get f-cked! I was never invited to such a party again.

Nevertheless, it was a gay entrepreneur who started the move to get a re-call – and he was having a lot of problems and had to go into the background and let it be taken over by a straight woman.

C.M-S: How do you assess the developments since 1970?

José:  I was quite offended in America when they said that everything began with the Stonewall Riots. (1969)

C.M-S: But that upsets many Europeans !

José: ... because that is not true. Gays have existed since the time of Christ – except that they weren’t militant – fighting for rights. I finally conceded that in 1969 -  in America – not in Europe -  homosexuality – was recognised as being there. It was the first time they talked about it on the television, - that they mentioned the word. Otherwise, they never mentioned the word.  Stonewall - that got news coverage – and that was started with a few drag queens.

In San Francisco – we had already fought. But I didn’t fight that way. I fought with the law, I read the law and worked around the law. We had already achieved much in San Francisco – long before Stonewall.

That the drag queens fought with the police (at Stonewall) was good.

Such meetings as we have had here, and the writing down of (our) history is good because you must remember … that the youth don’t remember that at one time you couldn’t go to a (gay) bar because they didn’t exist.

C. de la Motte-Sherman

[1] Presumably of Lerner & Lowe who wrote the musicals Gigi and Briga’doon.

[2] A US-human rights and labor union lawyer in active in the first half of the 20th century

Home page: english counter
© 2001 Colin de la Motte-Sherman