LGBT History Month, Jose Sarria, Sally Ride, Vito Russo

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Jose Sarria


b. December 12, 1923

d. August 19, 2013

“Why be ashamed of who you are?"

José Sarria was a drag performer, singer and activist. He was the first openly gay man in the world to run for public office.

Sarria, who was of Latin-American descent, was born in San Francisco. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, who allowed him to dress in women’s clothes.

During World War II, Sarria enlisted in the army. His fellow soldiers discriminated against him because he was gay. Sarria became friends with some by giving them tours of San Francisco.

Sarria began performing at “The Black Cat,” a San Francisco gay club. His shows, which included warning guests of police extortion and raids on gay bars, were a hit. Although the messages were often serious, Sarria presented them humorously and with a gay twist. He became famous for his closing song, “God Save Us Nelly Queens.”

In 1961, Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He lost, but received 5,600 votes, demonstrating that a gay voting bloc could wield political power. The possibility of empowerment laid the groundwork for the election of Harvey Milk.

In the 1960s, San Francisco gay bars were being shut down. The Tavern Guild of San Francisco organized a drag ball to protest. Sarria was crowned Queen of the Ball.

Sarria cofounded the Imperial Court System, an international organization that raises money for people living with HIV/AIDS and other causes. In 2006, a street in San Francisco was named in his honor.

Sally RideNational Hero

May 26, 1951

July 23, 2012

“Young girls need to see role models. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Sally Ride was the first female American astronaut in space.

Born in Los Angeles, Ride excelled in science and sports. She was a nationally ranked junior tennis player and earned a tennis scholarship to a private high school. While playing in college, she got the attention of Billie Jean King, who encouraged Ride to play professionally. Ride decided to finish her education.

Ride earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in physics from Stanford. She responded to a NASA recruiting ad and was one of 35 people—including six women— chosen from more than 8,000 applicants.

Ride was selected as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger. On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space. She later became the only person to serve on the presidential commissions investigating both of the nation’s space shuttle tragedies—the Challenger explosion (1986) and the Columbia disaster (2003).

In 1987, Ride retired from NASA and became a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford. In 1989, she joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which motivates girls and boys to study science and explore careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Ride co-authored several books about space and about climate change with Tam O’Shaughnessy, her life partner of 27 years.

In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Ride a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Vito RussoFilm Historian

b. July 11, 1946

d. November 7, 1990

 “I never once, not for a second, believed it was wrong to be gay.”

Vito Russo was a gay rights activist, a film historian and an author best known for his book, “The Celluloid Closet,” a groundbreaking chronicle of gays and lesbians in film.

A New York City native, Russo grew up in East Harlem. As a young boy, he would sneak into Manhattan to go to the movies. From an early age, Russo knew he was “different.” A cousin remembers him always talking about Rock Hudson rather than Ava Gardner.

After graduating from New York University, Russo joined the Gay Activists Alliance. In the early 1970s, he started research for “The Celluloid Closet” (1981), which included watching hundreds of films that included gay content and stereotypes. What originated as a lecture with film clips became one of the most informative books about gay people and pop culture.

Diagnosed with HIV in 1985, Russo was a frequent protestor with ACT UP. In 1986, Russo lost his longtime partner, Jeffrey Sevcik, to AIDS. Outraged by the media’s inadequate and inaccurate coverage of the pandemic, Russo cofounded GLAAD, an organization that monitors LGBT representation in the media. In his memory, GLAAD created the Vito Russo Media Award to recognize out LGBT media professionals who have made a significant difference promoting equality.

Russo appeared in the 1989 Academy Award-winning documentary, “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,” about the life and death of Sevcik and the quilt Russo made for him. A year later, Russo died from AIDS-related complications.

In 1996, “The Celluloid Closet” was made into a documentary that was co-produced and narrated by Lily Tomlin. In 2012, “Vito,” a film about Russo’s life, premiered on HBO.