Stormé DeLarverie: Stonewall Stalwart
By Tara Mae
Pride began as a protest. The Stonewall Uprising in New York City was a rebellion against ongoing mistreatment, discrimination, and abuse that helped ignite an equal rights movement. Frequently referred to as the “Rosa Parks of the gay community,” Stormé DeLarverie’s call for help the night of June 28,1969, served as one of the sparks.
DeLarverie was born in 1920 in New Orleans to a Black mother who worked for the family of her father, a white man. She did not have a birth certificate (Louisiana would not issue one to her parents) and was unsure of her actual birthdate, so DeLarverie chose December 24th to celebrate. Raised primarily by her grandfather, her wealthy father paid for her education.
Growing up as a biracial child in the Jim Crow South left her an outsider. DeLarverie reflected that she was beaten up by kids of both races. Bullies once hung her by the leg from a fence post, where she remained until her brother freed her. DeLarverie was left with scars and had to wear a leg brace for years. There were many such incidents, and her father sent her to private school for her own safety. She eventually stood up for herself, confronting her two most dedicated tormentors.
As DeLarverie later noted in the documentary Stormé: Lady of the Jewel Box, “Somebody was always chasing me - until I stopped running.” Unable to fit in anywhere, she had to make space for herself everywhere. As a teenager, she worked for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, riding jumping horses bareback (and side-saddle); the gig ended due to a bad fall. Around the age of 18, DeLarverie realized that she was a lesbian, and, fearing for her safety, moved to Chicago.
A commanding presence with a powerful voice, DeLarverie was a singer and entertainer, primarily collaborating with big bands. In the 1940s, she went by the name “Stormy Dale” and wore traditional women’s attire on stage. As her career developed, she exclusively used such outfits as street clothes. While touring Miami in 1946, DeLarverie met Danny Brown and Doc Brenner, proprietors of “Danny’s Jewel Box,” a drag revue.
Persuaded to join the act, she planned to stay for six months. DeLarverie stayed for years. Ignoring warnings that it would ruin her reputation, she donned male drag, dressed as a dandy, and sang in a hearty baritone. DeLarverie integrated the revue, which made it the first such drag troupe in the country. It evolved into “The Jewel Box Revue,” and she starred as its emcee and solo drag king. Her performance style was so unique and distinctive it created a new historic precedent.
The group toured the national black theater circuit, including the Apollo Theater, and gained a sterling reputation. Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday were among its many supporters. It was acknowledged in “mainstream” culture and attracted mixed race audiences. DeLarverie also took the stage at Radio City Music Hall and the Copacabana. She was so popular that lesbian fans began dressing in “male” apparel in her honor. DeLarverie, who at this point wore such ensembles on a daily basis, is credited with influencing gender-nonconforming women’s fashion years before unisex clothing became acceptable wardrobe staples.
She had different roles for the show. DeLarverie acted as a bodyguard, protecting the revue’s transwomen and drag queens. It was an avocation that extended beyond her coworkers; for years, DeLarverie was a self-appointed sentinel of lesbian bars, stationing herself to safeguard their patrons. She functioned as a sort of guardian to lesbian street kids, looking out for them and doing her best to ensure their well-being. In New York City, she was known for her community spirit and vigilance.
On June 28, 1969, during the early morning hours, DeLarverie was at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Frequented by marginalized people, such as “butch lesbians” (of which DeLarverie self-identified), transgendered men and women, drag kings and queens, and homeless youth, Stonewall was owned by the Mafia and paid a weekly “gayola” (envelope full of cash) to the police department to stay open because the bar had no liquor license. It was considered to be a focal point of gay nightlife, a place where individuals who were rejected by other establishments could gather and socialize. There was a $3 entry fee that provided two drink tickets, and it was the only gay bar in the area that had a dancefloor.
Like other businesses that served the LGBTQ+ community, Stonewall was no stranger to police raids. Management was frequently tipped off in advance, and would flash the dance floor lights to let patrons know that a raid was imminent. Identifications were then checked and arrests, primarily of transgendered and crossdressing persons, were made. In many ways, this interaction proved very different.
Police were commonly aggressive, even violent and abusive, during such encounters. They would regularly harass and beat persons as they arrested them. That Saturday night, there was no advanced warning of the raid and police came hours later than their normal arrival time. They entered the bar, and DeLarverie and some other “butch lesbians,’ who had risen in defense of their friends, were beaten by them. A police officer called her a pejorative term and hit her. DeLarverie hit him back.
There are varying accounts of the next sequence of events. Another cop apparently struck DeLarverie in the head with a baton after she complained that her handcuffs were too tight. Bleeding from the head, four police officers dragged her to the police wagon. DeLarverie jumped out of it and ran towards Stonewall. Police pulled her back and started beating her again. DeLarverie, still bleeding, yelled to the crowd, “Why don’t you do something?” And so, with the support of a Black transgendered woman called Marsha P. Johnson, they did.
The Stonewall Uprising is sometimes categorized as a riot, but DeLarverie saw it differently. “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience-it wasn’t no damn riot.” The actions of the patrons and people on the street was not coordinated, but it was inspired. The late ‘60s saw civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights protests take many forms. The Uprising was a dialect in the language of dissent. Members of the LGBTQ+ community fought back, launching a social and political reckoning that continues today.
In the following days and nights, sporadic protests and clashes with police continued to erupt, while community organizing and planning commenced. Within six months, two activist groups, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, formed. Stonewall was a catalyst for the development of the modern day LGBTQ+ movement for equality, recognition, and protections under the law and in society.
DeLarverie managed to avoid arrest that night. She continued to be the “babysitter of [her] people, all the boys and girls,” while she worked as a bouncer at lesbian bars and patrolled the Village, making sure no one, especially lesbians of whom she saw herself a guardian, was being bullied. DeLarverie was a frequent attendee of the New York City Gay Pride Parade, the first of which, held on the one year anniversary of the uprising, was not a parade, but a protest. DeLarverie lived with her partner, a dancer named Diana, for approximately 25 years until Diana’s death in the 1970s. She carried her photo with her for the rest of her life.
An iconic figure of the neighborhood, DeLarverie was a prominent member of the Stonewall Rebellion Veterans Association, and served as Chief of Security, Ambassador, and Vice President. The organization represents gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender education, culture, and history. She organized and performed in fundraisers for battered women and children, musing, “Someone has to care...If people didn’t care about me when I was growing up, with my mother being Black, raised in the south...I wouldn’t be here.” DeLarverie cared all her life.
Employed as a security guard for the lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson from 1990 to 2005, she retired at the age of 85. DeLarverie lived for years in the Chelsea Hotel, before moving into a nursing home. Concerned about the quality of her care there, Lisa Cannastraci, an owner of Henrietta Hudson, and another friend, Michele Zalopany, became her legal guardians. They moved DeLarverie, who had dementia, into a more suitable facility. She died on May 24, 2014 at the age of 93. A woman who blazed trails simply by being herself, DeLarverie’s legacy is an inspiration to anyone who seeks to confidently embrace their own identity while demanding the right to flourish.