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Inspiring Thursday: Stormé DeLarverie

This month, in celebration of Pride, we’ll be posting stories of inspiring women who are activists in the LGBTQ+ community. Queer heroes aren’t often given the recognition they deserve, but Pride is an opportunity to celebrate them and make sure they’re not forgotten.

Stormé DeLarverie didn’t put up with ugly. “Ugly,” for her, was any form of bias, discrimination or harassment — particularly against gay women. After throwing punches at the 1969 Stonewall protests in New York City, DeLarverie was renowned for her staunch, no nonsense front against homophobia and discrimination. The Stonewall protests, which took place at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, instigated the celebration of Pride as it’s known today — the first parades and celebrations were commemorative of the clash on June 28, 1969.

Born in New Orleans in the 1920s, Stormé was the daughter of biracial parents. Growing up in the American South at that time, this meant that she had no legal birth certificate — one of the first structural forms of discrimination she was to experience in a long life of resistance and resilience. At 18, she moved north to Chicago, where she hoped to find more acceptance as a mixed-race gay woman.

Stormé began performing in her early 20s, singing and dancing in Chicago bars and clubs. She embodied a traditionally feminine persona, singing with big bands and swing orchestras.

In 1955, Stormé began to perform as a drag king, (then termed a “male impersonator”) in Chicago’s Jewel Box Revue. Working with the Revue until 1969, she went on to become the emcee, musical director and stage manager of the Revue, a touring drag cabaret with the slogan “25 Men and One Girl.” Crowds of gay and straight patrons alike, as well as families, would come see the Revue perform three or four times a day at venues across the United States. The show was particularly popular and welcoming for black communities.

While drag queens, or “female impersonators” at the time were not uncommon in theatrical and musical production (like the 25 men in the Revue), kings like Stormé (the “one girl”) were uncommon, and not as widely accepted. Despite resistance as she first made the decision to perform in masculine attire, Stormé paid no heed to the backlash against her non-traditional performance identity and she was seen as an inspiration to gay women transgressing gender norms in her era.

At the time of the Stonewall protests, New York criminal statutes described the act of wearing less than three articles of “gender-appropriate” clothing a criminal offense. Many of the patrons of the Stonewall in were cross-dressers and trans individuals, and this contributed significantly to police brutality in the conflict on June 28, 1969. Although it is still debated whether DeLarverie threw the first punch in the protest, her masculine attire and butch presentation was often used against her in violent and explicit harassment.

As well as being active in the Stonewall protests, Stormé went on to become a member of the Stonewall Veterans Association, and participated in the commemorative Pride parade and events in later years.

Not long after Stonewall, DeLarverie’s partner, a dancer named Diana, passed away, and the drag king retired from performing almost entirely. She instead focused her energy in the protection of her community, acting as a bouncer and bodyguard in some of New York’s popular lesbian bars. Holding a state gun permit, DeLarverie was a force to be reckoned with on New York’s Seventh and Eighth Avenues, where she patrolled until her 80s, keeping the ugly at bay.

In 2000, she received the Gay Lifetime Achievement Award from Senior Action in Gay Environment (SAGE).

The last few decades of DeLarverie’s life were tumultuous as she faced health, legal and housing issues. Lisa Cannistraci, DeLarverie’s friend and employer at the Henriette Hudson lesbian bar, became her legal guardian. Cannistraci and other close friends helped DeLarverie find safety and comfort in her last years, residing in a care home in Brooklyn.

DeLarverie passed away in 2014, a heroic activist for LGBTQ+ rights.

By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern

Sources

Frederick, Candice. “LGBT Icon Storme DeLarverie’s Personal Collection Comes to the Schomburg.” New York Public Library, June 23, 2017. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2017/06/23/lgbt-icon-storme

Goodman, Elyssa. “Drag Herstory: A Drag King’s Journey From Cabaret Legend to Iconic Activist.” Them., March 29, 2018. https://www.them.us/story/drag-king-cabaret-legend-activist-storme-delarverie

Hajela, Deepti. “Stonewall activist Storme DeLarverie dies at 93.” The San Diego Union Tribune, May 27, 2014.

https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-stonewall-activist-storme-delarverie-dies-at-93-2014may27-story.html

Yardley, William. “Storme DeLarverie, Early Leader in the Gay Rights Movement, Dies at 93.” The New York Times, May 29, 2014.  https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/nyregion/storme-delarverie-early-leader-in-the-gay-rights-movement-dies-at-93.html?register=email&auth=register-email

“Stonewall Riots.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, May 31, 2017. https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/the-stonewall-riots