By Kathryn S Gardiner
Stormé DeLarverie celebrated Dec. 24, 1920 as her birthday, but the exact date wasn’t a certainty. She was born in New Orleans to white father and an African-American mother who was her father’s hired servant. The two later married and the family relocated to California.
As a biracial child, Stormé faced bullying and harassment, and in her teen years, she made literal the rhetorical: She joined the circus. For several years, she rode horses for the Ringling Brothers Circus until a fall resulted in an injury that pushed her into retirement before her 20s. She’d also been performing as a singer, so she shifted her energies into her stage presentation.
Stormé realized she was gay in her late teens, and in her late 20s began to experiment with gender presentation. She would often perform as a male impersonator, or a “drag king,” and shined in the role of master of ceremonies of the Jewel Box Revue from 1955 to 1969. The Jewel Box Revue was the United States’ first racially integrated drag show (and Stormé was their only drag king). The touring group performed for audiences of all races, which was uncommon in the era of segregation.
“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.”
Able to pass for male or female, black or white, Stormé became a fashion icon. On stage, she often dressed like contemporary crooners. Off stage, she was striking and androgynous, subverting and rejecting the notions of what was “men’s clothing” or “women’s clothing,” inspiring other lesbians to similar fashion daring. Stormé enjoyed a long relationship with a dancer named Diana, who passed away in 1970. Stormé carried Diana’s picture for the rest of her life.
It should be remembered that both same-sex relationships and “gender inappropriate clothing” were illegal at this time. Police harassment was constant; a gay couple even holding hands was an arrestable offense. During raids, female police officers would take suspected cross-dressers into the restrooms to check their sex.
As the queer community was pushed to the fringes of society, the mafia, naturally, saw an opportunity. The Genovese crime family owned most of the gay bars in Greenwich Village, including the Stonewall Inn. Despite the less-than-ideal environment (knowing their clients had few choices, the Genovese family didn’t maintain the property; the toilets routinely overflowed and there was rarely running water behind the bar), the Stonewall Inn became a sanctuary for people who found acceptance nowhere else. The mafia paid off police officers to avoid raids (funded, perhaps, by the blackmail money received to not expose notable visitors to the gay bars) and were therefore usually tipped off to raids so that all “illegal” behavior could be ceased before the authorities arrived.
No such tip came on June 28, 1969. Police arrived with a warrant, roughing up patrons indiscriminately, and arresting 13 people for violating the statute for gender-conforming clothing. Rather than dispersing, however, other patrons lingered, years of violence, oppression, and exclusion bubbling under the surface.
It was around 1:20 a.m. when, as recounted at History.com, “an officer hit a lesbian over the head as he forced her into the police van—she shouted to onlookers to act, inciting the crowd to begin throw[ing] pennies, bottles, cobble stones and other objects at the police.”
“Nobody knows who threw the first punch,” said Lisa Cannistraci, Stormé’s friend and later legal guardian, “but it’s rumored that [Stormé] did, and she said she did.”
“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.’”
In mere minutes, it was a battle, as hundreds of drag queens, trans men and trans women, non-binary individuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and every queer identity under the sun—many of them also people of color, like Stormé, who had felt the yoke of the law and prejudice elsewhere in their lives—fought back. The police soon barricaded themselves in the bar. The mob broke through the barricade more than once and attempted to set the inn on fire. They succeeded. The fire department and the riot squad arrived to put out the flames and break up the crowd. They only partially succeeded; though the fire at the Stonewall Inn was doused, the fire of the rebellion spread.
Protests, often numbering in the thousands, continued in Greenwich Village for five days, erupting into violence and destruction more than once. While this was not the beginning of the gay rights movement (organizations had existed and had been fighting for decades), the Stonewall uprising was a motivating and unifying event. The anniversity parade held the following year, June 28, 1970, was the United States of America’s first gay pride parade.
It’s not certain that it was Stormé who was arrested and gave the call to action, though she says it was and several eyewitnesses concur. What is certain, however, is that she was there, she fought, and she spent the rest of her life protecting her “baby girls,” the other lesbians in the Village.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, she worked as a bouncer for several New York City lesbian bars, and often patrolled the neighborhood as a gun-toting (she had a state permit) “guardian of the lesbians of the Village.” In her obituary in The New York Times, Lisa said, “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.”
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience—it wasn’t no damn riot.”
She didn’t leave her performing or her fashion innovation behind either. For decades, she lived at the Hotel Chelsea among a vibrant community of artists, writers, musicians, and actors; and she took the stage for fundraisers benefitting battered women and children. “Somebody has to care,” she said. “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.’”
Friend Lisa Cannistraci says Stormé worked as a bouncer until she was 85 years old. She suffered dementia in her later years, but her memories of her childhood and the events at Stonewall remained strong until her death in 2014. Her funeral was held at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home. Five years later, in June 2019, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, Stormé and fifty others were inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall Inn.
It’s an oft-repeated phrase in June: “The first Pride was a riot.” Stormé disagreed. “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising,” she said. “It was a civil rights disobedience—it wasn’t no damn riot.