LGBT History Month Profiles Elio di Rupo and José Sarria
As you already know, October is LGBT History Month. Each week throughout the month, we will be profiling two of the people named to Equality Forum’s LGBT History Month icon lists, to showcase the great things LGBT people have done, and are doing.
Elio di Rupo
(born July 18, 1951)
Elio di Rupo was born in Morlanwelz in the French-speaking part of Belgium called Wallonia. He was the only one of his siblings to be born in Belgium as opposed to Italy, where his family was originally from. His father died in a car crash when he was one year old and three of his six siblings were placed in an orphanage because his mother could not care for all of them on her own.
Di Rupo graduated from the University of Mons-Haimaut in the city of Mons in Belgium, eventually obtaining a doctoral degree in chemistry. While studying for his doctorate, he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Although passionately interested in chemistry, di Rupo started his role in politics fairly early, serving as an aide in the cabinet of former prime minister Jean-Maurice Dehousse in 1980.
He served the city of Mons as a councillor between the years of 1982-1985 and 1988-2000. During this time he personally worked in ministries such as health, urban renewal and social affairs. He rose to Deputy Head of Cabinet (minister of finance) for the Walloon-led government (the ministry was later renamed finance and energy). In 1987, he was chosen as a member of the Belgian Chamber of Deputies (similar to our House of Representatives), and in 1989 served in the European Parliament.
Di Rupo later became a Senator in 1991, and Vice-Prime Minister in 1995. In late 1999, he became President of the Socialist Party. In 2005, he became Minister-President of all of French Wallonia, and continued in his role as President of the Socialist Party in Belgium.
The government collapse following the 2010 elections was a big hurdle for di Rupo, who became Prime Minister for the first time ever upon orders from the Belgian king. However, his hands were tied for months, and the government would not reopen for 18 months. He finally formed his cabinet and was sworn in as Prime Minister on December 6, 2011.
Famous for being straightforward, di Rupo has been publicly out in Belgium since 1996, when a reporter asked him if he was gay and he famously responded with a pithy, “Yes, so what?” He is currently the only openly gay head of state in the world.
(December 12, 1922 or 1923 – August 19, 2013)
José Sarria was born in San Francisco to Julio Sarria, a third-generation Spanish-American, and Maria Dolores Maldonado, from a well-to-do family in Colombia. His parents never married and his father was not an active presence in his life at all, frequently being sent to jail for child support.
Sarria was educated at the Emerson School and Commerce High School. During his time in high school, he became fluent in French and German; this combined with Spanish and English brought his number of knowledgeable languages to four. Sarria started his first relationship with a man while he was his English tutor; the man was an Austrian baron who fled to the United States to escape the Nazis.
He first became known in the San Francisco LGBT scene in the early 1950s, when he started work at the Black Cat Bar as a cocktail waiter. He started in drag at the urging of a friend, winning a $50 contract consisting of two weeks of shows, and his performing career took off. At the Black Cat, he started singing arias and complete operas while serving drinks; this led to many scheduled performances.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Sarria fought police harassment not only against himself but the bar in which he worked. He ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, becoming the first openly gay candidate for public office in the country. While he didn’t win, San Francisco was first confronted with “the gay voting bloc,” a force nobody ignored in any city election afterwards. In 1962, Sarria helped create the country’s first gay business association, The Tavern Guild. In 1965, after being crowned “José I, The Widow Norton”, Sarria formed the Imperial Court System, which is now the second largest gay charity organization in the world. The Widow Norton would reign as Empress in the System until 2007.
He became a close friend to Harvey Milk, who, in 1977, would win the seat on the Board of Supervisors that Sarria tried to win back in 1961. Sarria lived in San Francisco until 1996. In the final years of his life, he earned San Francisco Pride’s Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal Award and a segment of 16th Street in The Castro was renamed “José Sarria Court.” Sarria died of adrenal cancer in August 2013 in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico.