“Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Sarria” will stream this year in LA’s virtual Outfest Film festival as part of its LatinX Voices program. Nelly Queen is the first feature documentary that focuses solely on activist Jose Sarria (1922-2013) and his milestone contributions to the LGBTQ movement (this year HBO max will produce a four-part docu-series entitled, Equal that highlights pre-Stonewall pioneer activists which includes a short segment on Sarria).
The LatinX Voices program features nine films by Latino filmmakers. Filmgoers can begin viewing Nelly Queen on August 26, and they have 72 hours in which to watch it after that date. The cost for this streaming package (all nine films, including Gaytino! Made in America) is $20.00. The film is in association with the International Court System.
“Nelly Queen is a long overdue documentary on the life on one of the most forgotten LGBTQ pioneers and trailblazers whose shoulders all LGBTQ elected office holders stand on,” stated Executive Producer and San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez.
For more information on Nelly Queen and other Outfest films, visit
At the intersection of politics and camp, Nelly Queen paints an intimate portrait of a drag performer who, during the 1950s, brazenly stands up to corrupt San Francisco police, the vice and ABC agents; litigated anti-gay city ordinances; and starts the nation’s second largest gay nonprofit, The Imperial Courts.
When San Francisco politicians threaten to shut down the gay bars in 1961, Sarria runs as an openly gay candidate for City Supervisor, 11 years before Harvey Milk.
From 1955 to 1963, the legendary diva performs opera parodies at the Black Cat Café, a bohemian hangout for local artists, beatniks and gays in a section of San Francisco’s North Beach. From a stage made of four tables shoved together, Sarria not only entertains his audiences with gay operatic story-lines, he galvanizes a disenfranchised community with such slogans as “United we stand, divided they’ll catch us one by one.”
Sarria inspires his patrons to stand up for their rights by teaching them how to defy and circumvent unjust laws that deprive them of their basic rights. Whenever undercover officers enter the café to entrap patrons, Sarria exposes them by having his closeted customers stand up and sing with him, “God, Save Us Nelly Queens,” a clever rendition of Britain’s national anthem, as the vice shamefully retreat from the café. Sarria represents the archetype hero, the Trickster or Fool — the one who embodies the court jester to instigate change.
“Nineteen-ninety is when I first read about Jose in John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities while in Grad school at the University of Iowa,” said director Joseph Castel. “It was an epiphany, one of those out of body moments that people talk about. It was hard to wrap my head around the idea that a Latino drag queen could be so courageous during the conservative fifties, the era of McCarthyism and the purging of homosexuals from the federal government. Clearly, he must be insane, I thought.”
Castel had just broken up with a fellow film classmate, the love of his life and his future looked bleak during the height of the AIDs epidemic, but Sarria’s story inspires the grad student to come out of mourning. “I didn’t even know if Jose was still alive, but if he is I knew I had to meet him.” After Castel moves to California, that same year, he meets the 68-year-old diva who becomes his mentor and friend.
The director begins to tape Jose’s cabaret performances, political theatrics, and informal interviews at the kitchen table beginning in 1992 until Jose’s death in 2013. Most of the Hi-8 tapes used had to be restored after being ruined by moisture seeping into the cassettes.
After numerous interviews, Castel discovers that despite becoming a local hero to the LGBT community, Sarria’s unable to save his one true love, Jimmy Moore, the Black Cat’s waiter from his own self-destruction. As Jose’s cabaret star rises, Jimmy sinks deeper into alcoholism.
After The Black Cat closes in 1964, Sarria starts one of the largest nonprofit LGBT organizations in the country, the Imperial Courts, modeled after European royalty, in which more than 70 chapters have raised millions of dollars for AIDS.
As Sarria grows older, he continues to perform and raise awareness for LGBT causes, especially for AIDs. In the mid-1990s, Sarria becomes displaced from San Francisco due to soaring rent costs. Shortly before his death, Sarria reveals that his only regret in life is that he was unable to save the love of his life despite helping so many others to love and accept themselves.
Nelly Queen is not just an LGBT history lesson; it’s a triumphant story of the human spirit, a hero’s journey about a man fighting unjust laws and uniting a fractured community. Sarria’s courageous, historic contribution has long been overlooked as a cornerstone of the gay rights movement. God, save the Queen!