Private Project

Nelly Queen: The Life and Times of Jose Sarria

In, 1961, Jose Sarria was the first openly gay man to run for public office in the United States, and he ran in heels. When San Francisco city officials vowed to shut down all the gay bars in 1961, the 38-year-old female impersonator threw caution to the wind and campaigned for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Sarria lost the election but garnered nearly 6,000 votes and proved for the first time that there is a gay voting bloc. Nelly Queen is not just an LGBTQ history lesson, it's a triumphant story of the human spirit, a hero's journey of man infighting unjust laws and uniting a fractured community.

  • Joe Castel
  • Joe Castel
  • Mario J. Novoa
    Jeanne Cordova: Butches, Lies, and Feminism
  • Jose Sarria
    Key Cast
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    documentary, LGBT, Gay, Drag, San Francisco, Gay Rights, Harvey Milk
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 26 minutes 25 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    January 31, 2020
  • Production Budget:
    100,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • QFilms Film Festival
    Long Beach, CA
    United States
    September 5, 2019
    screened as a work in progress
    Audience Award for Best Feature
  • Frameline
    San Francisco
    United States
    June 25, 2021
  • Outfest Film Festival
    Los Angeles
    United States
    August 21, 2020
Director Biography - Joe Castel

Joe Castel is a producer, screenwriter and playwright whose work has explored Latino history and identity for over 20 years. Mr. Castel’s producing and directing credits include RECORDAR, a documentary about his family’s immigration from Mexico to Illinois, currently in the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection. He also co-wrote and produced the play THE BLVD, which received critical recognition in its six week run in West Hollywood.

Mr. Castel, along with his co-writer, was awarded a Corporation for Public Broadcasting development grant for HERO STREET, a feature-length screenplay that relates the true story of eight Mexican American war heroes. As a writer, Castel, has worked as a public relations consultant and reporter for numerous LGBTQ magazines.

For the past 20 years, Mr. Castel has written entertainment articles for the gay Latino magazine Adelante, published in Los Angeles, which is the largest and longest running gay LatinX magazine in the country.

He holds a Masters of Arts degree in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

I met Jose Sarria when I first moved to California in 1990, after reading about him in an academic book at the University of Iowa. I initially wanted to write a feature script on his life, so I began my research by videotaping his cabaret shows and conducting informal interviews. There were several staged readings of the script, but a feature film never transpired. However, I continued documenting my friend's life up until his death in 2013.

The main interviews from my personal tapes creates a chronological timeline of Jose's life from childhood to his death.

The tremendous emotional support Jose received from his mother as a gender fluid teenager helped him create a sense of identity and confidence . He knew who was, despite others' confusion, fear and disdain. However, his adversaries were few as he was so comfortable in his own skin, he won people over with his wit, insight and charm.

He was a decorated World War II veteran who learned to fight on the front lines. He took that fight from the battle field to lead a disenfranchised San Francisco gay community to self-awareness. As a drag performer, his cabaret stages were the front lines. His audiences were his troops. From the stage he preached that "Gay was Good. The crime was getting caught." So he taught them about their civil rights.

With a sense of empowerment he gained from his supporters, he ran for City Supervisors when officials decided to shut down all the gay bars in San Francisco. Although he lost the election, he garnered nearly 6,000 votes and proved there is a gay voting bloc.

In 1965, Jose started the second largest nonprofit in the county, the Imperial Court System, that still exists today, with more than 70 chapters in North America. The organization has raised millions of dollars for charities, most notably for AIDS charities during the height of the AIDS crisis.

It amazes me that no one has yet, made a film on this incredible man's life, but then again, Jose was an enigma, a rainbow onion that had to be gingerly peeled. It took me two decades to fully understand his guarded secrets and truly comprehend Jose as the performing identity and Jose the man. He hated the label drag queen, he saw himself as a fusion of male and female spirit, intertwined, prompting Dr. Alfred Kinsey to call Jose, to his face, "a perfect example of the Third Sex." Jose was as comfortable holding a hammer as a lipstick.

Interviewing Jose's contemporaries, friends, historians, and activists who knew him, gave me a deeper understanding of this iconic activist who will go down in the history books as one of the true pioneers of the LGBT movement.