Road to Stonewall 50: Stormé DeLarverie

When Stormé DeLarverie died at age 93 on May 24, 2014, it was a mere month before the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Now the 50th approaches. The New York Times’ obituary of DeLarverie noted, she “threw the first punch” at the police who were harassing patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, though this has not been confirmed. 

DeLarverie’s friend, activist Lisa Cannistraci, co-founder and current owner of the Greenwich Village club Henrietta Hudson, said, “Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumored that she did, and she said she did. She told me she did.”

DeLarverie has been identified by eyewitnesses — and has identified herself — as the legendary “Stonewall Lesbian” whose assault by police became the pivotal moment in the conflict that spawned the uprising of gay men, lesbians, drag queens and trans people that night and in the Days of Rage that followed. Until Stonewall, the New York State Liquor Authority penalized and shut down establishments that served alcohol to known or suspected LGBTQ people, arguing that the mere gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly.” 

The Stonewall Rebellion was indeed “disorderly” and DeLarverie frequently used that term to describe her behavior the night of the confrontation. 

Although now photographs of DeLarverie in all her 1950s and 1960s butch splendor abound on Pinterest, she was more of an unsung hero. As the 50th anniversary of Stonewall approaches, DeLarverie’s pivotal role in both the event itself and the movement it helped build deserves recognition. She was a founding member of the Stonewall Veterans Association where she held the singular title of Stonewall ambassador and served as vice president.

DeLarverie was a proud butch lesbian, singer, drag king performer and storied nightclub bouncer, as well as a noted gay activist. Born in New Orleans on Christmas Eve 1920, the biracial daughter of a white father and black mother, DeLarverie said she was bullied and taunted throughout her childhood. As a teenager she joined the Ringling Brothers Circus, where she rode the jumping horses until an injury ended her budding career.

After her circus work ended, DeLarverie began singing in clubs and cabarets, which she did throughout her 20s. She eventually moved to New York City where she had a long career as a performer throughout the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. DeLarverie was the only woman in The Jewel Box Revue, a legendary troupe of female impersonators known as “25 Men and One Girl.” She performed as a male impersonator, emceed the performances and acted as stage manager. The group performed regularly at the iconic Apollo Theatre as well as at Radio City Music Hall. It also toured the theater circuit nationwide, performing for audiences who were always surprised to discover who the “one girl” was. 

Black lesbian filmmaker Michelle Parkerson highlighted DeLarverie in her film, “Stormé, The Lady of the Jewel Box.” Noted photographer Diane Arbus once captured a lean and handsome butch DeLarverie dressed in a man’s slim-cut suit, sitting on a park bench, wearing the ubiquitous lesbian pinky ring, the last of a cigarette in her long, tapered fingers. The image, titled Miss Stormé de Larverie, the Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman, N.Y.C., was taken in 1961, at the zenith of DeLarverie’s tenure at the Jewel Box Revue. 

DeLarverie saw her role in the LGBTQ community as one of mentor and parent to younger lesbians and gay men, often befriending young people adrift in New York who had been shunned by their families of origin. As a bouncer at various lesbian and gay clubs in New York, she also acted unofficial security at queer events, vigilant against those she called “ugly” — bigots intent on harming LGBTQ people with words or actions. For decades DeLarverie served the community as a volunteer street patrol worker, the “guardian of lesbians in the Village.”

As The New York Times described her, “Tall, androgynous and armed — she held a state gun permit — Ms. DeLarverie roamed lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s.” She walked often and checked in at local lesbian bars. “She was on the lookout for what she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls,” reported The Times. 

Cannistraci said of DeLarverie in the same article, “She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero. She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.”

Superhero she was, until ill health befell her. For decades DeLarverie lived at the iconic Chelsea Hotel, but in 2010, she was injured in a fall. A short hospitalization uncovered a series of health problems including dementia. Cannistraci became DeLarverie’s guardian until her death.

DeLarverie was a fixture at the New York Pride March for years, often as grand marshal. She held a treasured place within the community, being given many awards for her years of service. Her final years were reportedly rather lonely, after she was no longer able to work — she was a bouncer until she was 85 — and prior to Cannistraci taking over her care. The discovery of her circumstances helped the community become more aware of LGBTQ seniors with no family to care for them, sparking necessary dialogue.

DeLarverie was once asked why she worked so hard for the community.

She said, “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.’” 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.