Stormé DeLarverie, who was born in New Orleans in 1920 to a black mother and a white father; it is said that her mother was a servant for her father’s family.
Stormé’s Early Life
According to DeLarverie, she was never given a birth certificate and was not certain of her actual date of birth. She instead celebrated her birthday on 24th December.
As a child, DeLarverie faced bullying and harassment.
She rode jumping horses with the Ringling Brothers Circus when she was a teenager although she was forced to stop riding horses after being injured in a fall. She came out as a lesbian around the age of eighteen.
She spent the ’50s and ’60s as the only “male impersonator” in the Jewel Box Revue, the period’s only racially integrated drag troupe: “There were around 25 guys and me,” she told AfterEllen.com in a 2010 interview.
Jewel Box Revue
During shows, audience members would try to guess who the “one girl” was, among the revue performers, and at the end, Stormé would reveal herself as a woman during a musical number called, “A Surprise with a Song,” often wearing tailored suits and sometimes a moustache that made her “unidentifiable” to audience members.
As a singer, she drew inspiration from Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday (both of whom she knew in person). During this era when there were very few drag kings performing, her unique drag style and subversive performances became celebrated, influential, and are now known to have set a historic precedent.
Several photographs of this time show Stormé DeLarverie with her cast-mates, channelling the male crooners of that era: in a shawl collar tuxedo, flanked by three female impersonators in glittery gowns; or in headshots, straightening her French cuffs and sporting an impressive set of cufflinks.
With her theatrical experience in costuming, performance and makeup, DeLarverie could pass as either a man or a woman, black or white. Offstage, she had a striking, handsome, androgynous presence, and inspired other lesbians to adopt what had formerly been considered “men’s” clothing as streetwear.
She is now considered to have been an influence on gender-nonconforming women’s fashion decades before unisex styles became accepted.
While her Jewel Box colleagues mostly appeared in drag onstage only, she would often walk around New York in her suits, starting something of a trend: “I was doing it, and then other lesbians started doing it!” she told AfterEllen.com.
In fact, she attracted the attention of legendary photographer Diane Arbus, whose 1961 portrait of her, “Miss Storme de Larverie, the lady who appears to be a gentleman,” has appeared in multiple Arbus retrospectives, including a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
DeLarverie lived for several years at the Chelsea Hotel, and a handful of documentaries have explored DeLarverie’s drag persona and her time as a guardian of the Village, serving as a security guard at the neighbourhood gay bars and as a more general watch-keeper.
Guardian of the Village
Tall, androgynous and armed (with her state gun permit) Stormé roamed lower 7th and 8th Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what she called “ugliness” which was any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls.”
“I can spot ugly in a minute,” she said in a 2009 interview. “No people even pull it around me that know me. They’ll just walk away, and that’s a good thing to do because I’ll either pick up the phone or I’ll nail you.”
After she told Curve Magazine in 2008 that she was the long-unidentified “Stonewall lesbian” who helped incite the rebellion, she became known as the “Rosa Parks of Stonewall.”
There has been a long-held discussion around who threw the first punch at Stonewall.
Fifty years later, the events of 28th June 1969, have been called “the Stonewall riots.” However, DeLarverie was very clear that “riot” is a misleading description:
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.”
– Stormé DeLarverie
At the Stonewall rebellion, a scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs, who may have been Stormé, was forcefully escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon. She was brought through the crowd by police several times, as she escaped repeatedly.
She fought with at least four police officers and was seen swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes.
Described by a witness as “a typical New York City butch” and “a dyke-stone butch,” she had been hit on the head by an officer with a baton for, as one witness stated, announcing that her handcuffs were too tight.
She was bleeding from a head wound as she fought back. Bystanders recalled that the woman sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and became hysterical and “It was at that moment that the scene became explosive.” Some have referred to that woman as “the gay community’s Rosa Parks”.
“Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it is rumoured that she did, and she said she did,’ said Lisa Cannistraci, a friend of DeLarverie and owner of the Village lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson. “She told me she did.”
Whether or not DeLarverie was the woman who fought her way out of the police wagon, all accounts agree that she was one of several butch lesbians who fought back against the police during the uprising.
DeLarverie’s role in the Gay liberation movement lasted long after the uprisings of 1969.
In the 1980s and 1990s, she worked as a bouncer for several lesbian bars in New York City. She was a member of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association, holding the offices of Chief of Security, Ambassador and, from 1998 to 2000, Vice President. She was also a regular at the gay pride parade.
For decades DeLarverie served the community as a volunteer street patrol worker, the “guardian of lesbians in the Village.”
On top of her work for the LGBT community, she also organised and performed at benefits for battered women and children. When asked about why she chose to do this work, she replied, “Somebody has to care. People say, ‘Why do you still do that?’ I said, ‘It’s very simple. If people didn’t care about me when I was growing up, with my mother being black, raised in the south.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t be here.'”
Stormé DeLarverie continued working as a bouncer until age 85.
DeLarverie suffered from dementia in her later years. From 2010 to 2014, she lived in a nursing home in Brooklyn. Though she apparently did not recognise that she was in a nursing home, her memories of her childhood and the Stonewall Uprisings remained strong.
On 24th April 2014, DeLarverie was also honoured alongside Edith Windsor by the Brooklyn Community Pride Centre, “for her fearlessness and bravery” and was also presented with a proclamation from New York City Public Advocate, Letitia James.
She died in her sleep on 24th May 2014, in Brooklyn. No immediate family members were alive at her time of death.
Lisa Cannistraci, who became one of DeLarverie’s legal guardians, stated that the cause of death was a heart attack. She remembers DeLarverie as “a very serious woman when it came to protecting people she loved.” A funeral was held on 29th May 2014, at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home.
In June 2019, DeLarverie was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honour within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. This was alongside Jeanne Manford, who we covered in last week’s podcast episode too.
Stormé DeLarverie was a pioneer for lgbtq+ women, a guardian for the community and someone who deserves more recognition.