The Stonewall Uprising was a pivotal event in the fight for gay liberation. While it did not directly lead to the introduction of gay rights, it was a major consequence of the long-existing tension between the oppressor and the oppressed. Historians still cannot confirm who exactly started the Stonewall Uprising. Arguably, there were several key players almost erased from that night who deserve their dues. Stormé DeLarverie, a butch lesbian “drag king” entertainer, is a hidden figure at the heart of the story.
When analyzing her background, DeLaverie had always been on the fringes of society. Born in New Orleans in 1923 to a black mother and a white father, she stood between two opposing worlds. To add to a complicated beginning, anti-miscegenation laws prevented her from receiving a birth certificate. She was also noted for her androgynous appearance, but she was not able to live comfortably in her gender non-conformity prior to adulthood.
Finding a Passion
DeLaverie discovered a love for jazz at a very early age. With her passion for music, she started making a name for herself throughout the world. Praised for her beautiful baritone voice, she started singing in New Orleans clubs at 15. She would soon begin touring around Europe and eventually land in New York City. She realized she was lesbian near the age of 18. This, along with her other differences, caused DeLaverie to face a lot of violence in her youth.
She would find refuge, and ultimately a family, with the Jewel Box Revenue. The Jewel Box Revenue was a racially integrated variety show that featured 25 drag queens and DeLarverie as the lone drag king. DeLaverie became the master of ceremonies for the group. Initially, she only wore men’s clothing on stage. However, her androgynous appearance led to arrests that occurred while wearing both men’s and women’s clothing. Eventually, she got tired of abiding by the law and started to do as she pleased.
In 1987 a film by Michelle Parkerson, Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box, captured Stormé’s life in the 1950s and 1960s, touring the black theater circuit. During those decades, Diane Arbus and Avery Williard were the main photographers documenting her.
Furthermore, her rebellion with clothing alone would instigate her own involvement in the Stonewall Uprising. On June 28, 1969, the New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. DeLaverie, amongst other key LGBT figures, did not respond with routine compliance.
On that night, there were accounts of a “butch lesbian in men’s clothing” arrested for not wearing the three pieces of clothing correct for her gender. During her struggle with the police, one of the officers struck her on the head with a billy club, which caused her to bleed severely. While they forced her into the police van, she urged men watching her ordeal to help her, asking, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
Her words sparked a reaction from the crowd, and rumors spread about DeLaverie throwing the first punch at a cop. According to DeLaverie, she hadn’t meant to receive notoriety for her actions. Unquestionably, she had grown tired of the “ugly” (a term she used to describe bigotry).
Two months after Stonewall, Stormé left the Jewel Box Revue and switched career paths. In the 1980s and 1990s, she worked as a bouncer for several lesbian bars in New York City, including Elaine Romagnoli’s Cubby Hole. In addition, Delaverie made it her business to protect young women from predatory men on the streets. Often, she wore a gun on her hip and was sometimes called the “Butch Cowboy of NYC.” She was also a member of the Stonewall Veterans Association, holding the offices of Chief of Security, Ambassador, and later Vice President.
After DeLaverie retired from working at the Cubby Hole, she began to suffer physical health problems and dementia in her old age. Fortunately, her friends set her up in an assisted living facility where she could live comfortably for the rest of her days. She passed in May of 2014 at the approximate age of 93. However, her contributions were so great that she lived on in the minds of all those she’d inspired.
In 2022, Jennifer Hopkins wrote a more detailed biography on the daring life that Stormé DeLarverie led titled The Life of Storme DeLaverie: The Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ+ Community. Until recently, much of DeLaverie’s life story was a mystery due to her being a very private person. Hopkins stresses the importance of highlighting all those who contributed to the Stonewall Uprising. DeLaverie is just one of the many voices reemerging years later as a reminder of how far we’ve come.
For a broader analysis of the Stonewall Rebellion and its influence on LGBT rights, click here!