Stormé DeLarverie: The lesbian spark in the Stonewall Uprising

Aug. 2018 Stormé

Stormé standing guard by The Cubby Hole in the West Village, probably in the 1990s.

By ANN MONTAGUE

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. In the early morning hours, gay men and lesbians fought back against the police raid of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. After that event, which began in the early morning of June 28,1969, Gay Liberation had joined the lexicon of Women’s Liberation, Black Liberation, and Chicano Liberation.

There are phenomenal lives and stories connected to that night that should not be forgotten or erased. One is that of Stormé DeLarverie—who had been fighting back all her life and fought back that night.

Stormé had a tough Southern upbringing. She was born in Louisiana in 1920; since she had no birth certificate, she chose Dec. 24 as her birthday. Her mother was a Black servant in the house of her father, who was white. They made sure she got an education, but growing up biracial in the South was a continual fight.

She told Kirk Klocke in an interview that she still had scars on her leg from when bullies hung her by the leg from a fence post. Her brother had to take her down, and she wore a brace for years. She started singing as a teenager in New Orleans jazz clubs until she came out as a lesbian at 18 and moved to Chicago, which is where her singing career really began.

She met a dancer named Diana, the love of her life, and went on the road with Doc Bender and Danny Brown. Finally, she could be herself and was respected as a singer. Together they created the Jewel Box Revue, an extravaganza with 25 high-kicking drag queens and songs sung by Stormé, the baritone who always dressed in a white tuxedo. It was the first racially integrated drag revue in the country. She was the emcee and music director for 14 years.

They toured the country, and starting in 1957, their popular shows could be seen twice a week at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Stormé was also a bouncer for lesbian bars in Greenwich Village.

Stonewall Inn

The Stonewall Inn was Mafia owned and operated. Before you could enter, you had to be checked through a peephole; if you were not gay or lesbian you could not come in. Organized crime kept the gay bars racially segregated and most of the bars for people of color were on 42nd Street and in Harlem. There were, of course, exceptions to the color bar.

Aug. 2018 Stonewall_Inn_1969

The Stonewall Inn in 1969.

There are varying descriptions of the patrons of The Stonewall Inn, but also some general agreement. The owners of Stonewall were one of the few that allowed same-sex couples to dance together. They had a system of blinking lights to warn everyone of an impending raid.

The bar drew patrons from different parts of the city. They were mostly closeted gay men (probably married to women), college boys, and homeless gay youth. It was not primarily a drag bar. There were lesbian bars in Greenwich Village too, and some lesbians also went to the Stonewall.

Stormé was involved in forming the Stonewall Veterans Association and was later elected vice president. They often had panels of speakers, and over the decades she was always quick to remind later generations what it was like before Stonewall: Lesbians and gay men could receive a $70 fine for “looking at someone with desire.”

You could be arrested for not wearing a certain number of “gender appropriate articles of clothing.” This meant that lesbians who might be wearing a three-piece suit had to be able to show they were also wearing a bra and stockings. If not, they could be thrown in jail.

Stormé’s recollection 

Stormé recalled her part in the uprising at a public, videotaped event sponsored by the Stonewall Veterans Association. She started at the beginning: “The cops were parading patrons out of the front door of the Stonewall at about 2 a.m. in the morning. I saw this one boy being taken out by three cops, only one in uniform. Three to one.  I told my pals, ‘I know him! That is Williamson, my friend Sonia Jane’s friend.

“Williamson briefly broke loose but they grabbed the back of his jacket and pulled him right down on the cement street. One of them did a drop kick on him. Another cop senselessly hit him from the back. Right after that a cop said to me, ‘move faggot,’ thinking 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 in the face.”

Four officers then attacked her and handcuffed her in response. When she pointed out that she was cuffed too tightly, one officer hit her head with a billy club. As she was bleeding from the head, she turned to the crowd and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After a long struggle, she was dragged towards a police van, and that was when everything exploded. Many who were there recall her call to arms.

Stormé was always clear: “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was civil disobedience. It was no damn riot.”

Of course she was correct. Stonewall was not a one-night riot. Thousands of gays and lesbians rose up for six nights. There was organizing during the day and returning to the Stonewall Inn every night for six nights. Out of the uprising grew two activist organizations, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance, and three gay and lesbian newspapers.

Erasing Black lesbians

Claire Heuchan wrote an article for AfterEllen.com entitled, “We Need to Talk about Misogyny and the LGBT Community’s Erasure of Black Lesbian History.” (See: http://www.afterellen.com/general-news/561237-we-need-to-talk-about-misogyny-and-the-lgbt-communitys-erasure-of-black-lesbian-history )

Heuchan focused in the article on the erasing of Stormé from some of the “official” histories of Stonewall. She was cut from the 1995 and the 2015 “Stonewall” films as well as from many histories of that period—and most recently in a press release by the National Center For Lesbian Rights.

Heuchan pointed out, “Lesbian history is hard to find, Black representation, female representation, and lesbian representation are not always straightforward to find, especially when you are looking for all three at once. Stormé, in all her Black butch magnificence, put herself at extraordinary risk to fight injustice and she deserves to be remembered for it. It was Stormé who led the resistance of homophobic police brutality at the Stonewall Inn.”

After Stonewall

For years, Stormé worked as a bouncer at lesbian bars, such as the Cubby Hole in the West Village. Stormé became a self appointed guardian of lesbians in Greenwich Village, patrolling the streets for the next 30 years. For many she was known as the Sheriff of Greenwich Village. She was legally armed and would not put up with any form of intolerance, bullying, or abuse of lesbians in the Village. She was a fearless protector of lesbian spaces.

Her longtime friend Lisa Cannistraci bought a lesbian bar and named it Henrietta Hudson; she hired Stormé as the bouncer. When Stormé could no longer work, the women she protected came back to protect her until she died on May 29, 2014, at 93. Cannistraci summed up Stormé’s life: “She was a superhero, a vigilante defender of the defenseless.”