“If Gay and Lesbian people are given civil rights, soon everyone will want them”
― James Howe, Totally Joe ―
Stormé DeLarverie — pronounced STORM-ee… rather appropriate for a name that is synonymous with the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City and a life dedicated to fighting for LGBT equality. Ms. DeLarverie has been revered as the Gay Community’s Rosa Parks. She was a pioneer of the modern-day LGBT Civil Rights Movement — a fierce woman who stood up for our community throughout her life.
Some writers believe Ms. DeLarverie may have been the cross-dressing lesbian whose clubbing by the police at the Stonewall Inn during the summer of 1969, sparked the riots The woman has never been identified.
Others are adamant that Ms. DeLarverie was not that woman. However, no one disputes that she was there, and no one doubts that the woman who had been fighting back all her life, fought back fiercely in the summer of 1969. In an interview with the New York Times, in 2010, Stormé DeLarverie recalled that a police officer had hit her from behind. “I don’t know what he hit me with. He hit me from behind, the coward.”
She added: “A cop said to me, ‘Move faggot’, thinking that I was a gay guy. I said, ‘I will not! And, don’t you dare touch me.’ With that, the cop shoved me and I instinctively punched him right in his face. He bled! He was then dropping to the ground — not me!”
Two weeks after the Stonewall uprising, DeLarverie was a part of the official formation of the Stonewall Veteran’s Association on July 11, 1969. She rose through the ranks and eventually become the organization’s Vice President, and yet, sadly, those who are familiar with her dedication to the LGBT struggle are dwindling. The young members of the LGBT community, those in their 20s and 30s, have never heard of her.
Even more heart-breaking is the fact that this historical figure languished the last years of her life with little support from the LGBT community, being impoverished, with no family and few friends. In 2009, a social services group, the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged (JASA), was appointed her legal guardian by a judge. In March 2010, she was hospitalized after she was found disoriented and dehydrated at the Chelsea Hotel, her home for decades.
Born to a white father and black mother, in New Orleans on December 24, 1920, DeLarverie toured the fringe theatre circuit during the 50s and 60s as the only drag king in the popular drag performance group, Jewel Box Revue. The group regularly played the Apollo in Harlem and comprised of a dozen drag queens and DeLarverie, as King Stormé. The Jewel Box Revue was America’s first racially integrated female impersonation show.
Her friends believe that, in her younger days, she worked for the mob in Chicago. Once in New York, she was known to carry a straight-edge razor in her sock and her friends reminisce that while some merely walked to and from the gay and lesbian bars in the Village, she patrolled.
In the 1980s and ’90s Stormé worked as a bouncer for several lesbian bars in New York City. In 1987 Michelle Parkerson made the film Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box, which was screened on June 7, 2012, when the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture honoured Storme DeLarverie for her work within the LGBT community. One month before her death, on April 24, 2014, DeLarverie was honoured alongside Edie Windsor by the Brooklyn Community Pride Centre for her bravery, love, and fearlessness within the LGBT community.
Ms. DeLarverie passed away peacefully in her sleep on the morning of Saturday, May 24, 2014, in a nursing home in Brooklyn. Her death is a powerful reminder of the difficulties faced by elderly LGBT people, who are often estranged from their families and loved ones, living alone an incapable of giving themselves adequate care. It highlights the reason why LGBT seniors have special needs and I worry that someday I might be in the same position.
Yet, I cannot help but wonder: when New York’s LGBT community crowd 5th Avenue this year to celebrate Pride, will they know that six miles away in a care home, a frail old lady — ridden from her memories, her sanity and those who once were precious to her — died alone. She is the same woman who once was the cross-dressing M.C. of a group of drag performers… a fiercely protective (and pistol-packing) bouncer in the city’s lesbian bars… her contributions to the Gay Civil Rights Movement were monumental.
She is one of the reasons why toady we can celebrate and march in Pride.
Her name is Stormé DeLarverie. Lest we forget. May she rest in peace.
Images: Open Source Editorial or as Credited
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes