On 28 June 1969 an uprising began at the Stonewall Inn, New York City, which went on to impact the future of LGBT rights around the world.
Today marks seven years since Stormé DeLarverie died, and it seems like a good time to honour her as she was often overlooked when Stonewall was featured in the media.
Stormé DeLarverie (24 December 1920 – 24 May 2014) was an American woman known as the butch lesbian whose scuffle with police was, according to Stormé and many eye witnesses, the spark that ignited the Stonewall rebellion, spurring the crowd to action.
She was born in New Orleans, and is remembered as a gay civil rights icon and entertainer, who performed and hosted at the Apollo Theatre and Radio City Music Hall. She worked for much of her life as an MC, singer, bouncer, bodyguard and volunteer street patrol worker – the “guardian of lesbians in the Village” (Greenwich Village, New York City).
DeLarverie’s father was white; her mother was African American, and worked as a servant for his family. According to DeLarverie, she was never given a birth certificate and was not certain of her actual date of birth. She celebrated her birthday on 24 December.
As a child, DeLarverie faced bullying and harassment. She rode jumping horses with the Ringling Brothers Circus when she was a teenager, but stopped after being injured in a fall. She realised she was lesbian near the age of eighteen.
Her partner, a dancer named Diana, lived with her for about 25 years until Diana died in the 1970s. According to friend Lisa Cannistraci, DeLarverie carried a photograph of Diana with her at all times.
The events of 28 June 1969 have been called “the Stonewall riots”.
However, DeLarverie was very clear that “riot” is a misleading description: “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.”
At the Stonewall rebellion, a scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs, who may have been Stormé, was roughly escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon. Police brought her through the crowd several times, as she escaped repeatedly. She fought with at least four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. Described by a witness as “a typical New York City butch” and “a dyke-stone butch,” she had been hit on the head by an officer with a baton for, as one witness stated, announcing that her handcuffs were too tight. She was bleeding from a head wound as she fought back. Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains uncertain (Stormé has been identified by some, including herself, as the woman), sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and went “berserk”: “It was at that moment that the scene became explosive.” Some have referred to that woman as “the gay community’s Rosa Parks”.
“‘Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumoured that she did,” said Lisa Cannistraci, owner of the Village lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson. “She told me she did.”
Whether or not DeLarverie was the woman who fought her way out of the police wagon, all accounts agree that she was one of several lesbians who fought back against the police during the uprising.
The Jewel Box Revue
From 1955 to 1969 DeLarverie toured the black theatre circuit as the MC (and only drag king) of the Jewel Box Revue, North America’s first racially integrated drag revue. The revue regularly played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem as well as to mixed-race audiences, something that was still rare during the era of racial segregation in the United States. She performed as a baritone.
During shows audience members would try to guess who the “one girl” was, among the revue performers, and at the end Stormé would reveal herself as a woman during a musical number called, “A Surprise with a Song,” often wearing tailored suits and sometimes a moustache that made her “unidentifiable” to audience members. As a singer, she drew inspiration from Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday (both of whom she knew in person). During this era when there were very few drag kings performing, her unique drag style and subversive performances became celebrated, influential, and are now known to have set a historic precedent.
The movie, Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box, about DeLarverie and her time with the revue was released in 1987.
Influence on fashion
With her theatrical experience in costuming, performance and makeup, DeLarverie could pass as either a man or a woman, black or white. Offstage, she cut a striking, handsome, androgynous presence, and inspired other lesbians to adopt what had formerly been considered “men’s” clothing as street wear. She was photographed by renowned artist Diane Arbus, as well as other friends and lovers in the arts community, in three-piece suits and “men’s” hats. She is now considered to have been an influence on gender-nonconforming women’s fashion decades before unisex styles became accepted.
Life after Stonewall
DeLarverie’s role in the Gay Liberation movement lasted long after the uprisings of 1969.
In the 1980s and 1990s she worked as a bouncer for several lesbian bars in New York City. She was a member of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association, holding the offices of Chief of Security, Ambassador and, in 1998 to 2000, Vice President. She was a regular at the gay pride parade. For decades Delarverie served the community as a volunteer street patrol worker, the “guardian of lesbians in the Village.”
Tall, androgynous and armed – she held a state gun permit – Ms DeLarverie roamed lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls.” … “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.”
— DeLarverie’s obituary in The New York Times
In addition to her work for the LGBT community, she also organised and performed at benefits for battered women and children. When asked about why she chose to do this work, she replied, “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.'”
For several decades, DeLarverie lived at New York City’s famous Hotel Chelsea, where she “thrived on the atmosphere created by the many writers, musicians, artists, and actors.” Cannistraci says that DeLarverie continued working as a bouncer until age 85.
In June 2019, DeLarvarie was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The SNM is the first US national monument dedicated to LGBT rights and history and the wall’s unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
Illness and death
DeLarverie suffered from dementia in her later years. From 2010 to 2014, she lived in a nursing home in Brooklyn. Though she seemingly did not recognise she was in a nursing home, her memories of her childhood and the Stonewall uprisings remained strong. She died in her sleep on 24 May 2014, in Brooklyn. No immediate family members were alive at her time of death. Lisa Cannistraci, who became one of DeLarverie’s legal guardians, stated that the cause of death was a heart attack. She remembers DeLarverie as “a very serious woman when it came to protecting people she loved.” A funeral was held on 29 May 2014, at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home.
Everyone Is Awesome: Lego to launch first LGBTQ+ set
Toy company’s designer says he was inspired to support the community with a rainbow-themed creation.
In the “spraying room” at Lego HQ, tiny figurines are layered with bright, glossy paint before being placed on a rainbow arch. The result, a waterfall of colour with 11 brand new mini-figures striding purposefully towards an imagined brighter future, is the Danish toymaker’s inaugural LGBT+ set, titled Everyone Is Awesome.
The colours of the stripes were chosen to reflect the original rainbow flag, along with pale blue, white and pink representing the trans community, and black and brown to acknowledge the diversity of skin tones and backgrounds within the LGBT+ community.
In all but one case no specific gender has been assigned to the figures, who are intended to “express individuality, while remaining ambiguous”.
The exception, a purple mini-figure with a highly stylised beehive wig, “is a clear nod to all the fabulous drag queens out there”, said the designer, Matthew Ashton, who initially created the set for his own desk.
“I’d moved offices, so wanted to make the space feel like home with something that reflected me and the LGBT+ community I’m so proud to be a part of,” Ashton said.
But the set attracted attention and was soon in demand. “Other members of Lego’s LGBT+ community came by to tell me they loved it,” Ashton said. “So I thought, ‘maybe it’s something we should share’.” He also wanted to be more vocal in support of inclusivity.
“Growing up as an LGBT+ kid – being told what I should play with, how I should walk, how I should talk, what I should wear – the message I always got was that somehow I was ‘wrong’,” he said. “Trying to be someone I wasn’t was exhausting. I wish, as a kid, I had looked at the world and thought: ‘This is going to be OK, there’s a place for me’. I wish I’d seen an inclusive statement that said ‘everyone is awesome’.”
Ashton said he was really happy to work for a company that wants to be outspoken over such matters. Jane Burkitt, a fellow LGBT+ employee at Lego who works in supply chain operations, agreed.
“I’ve been at Lego for six years and I’ve never hesitated to be myself here, which isn’t the case everywhere,” Burkitt said. “When I joined Lego, I hoped it would be an inclusive place – but I didn’t know. People like me wonder, ‘will I be welcome here?’ And the answer is yes – but this set means that, now, everyone knows it.”
The set goes on sale on 1 June, the start of Pride month, but a few Afols (adult fans of Lego) and Gayfols have been given a preview.
“This set means a lot,” said Flynn DeMarco, a member of the LGBT+ Afol community and a contestant on the television show Lego Masters US. “Often LGBT+ people don’t feel seen, especially by corporations. There’s a lot of lip service and not a lot of action. So this feels like a big statement.”
Other LGBT+ representations by Lego – including a tiny rainbow flag in a build of Trafalgar Square, and a bride and groom BrickHeadz sold separately, so that fans could put two women or two men together – have been subtler.
“This is much more overt,” said DeMarco, who hopes the set will help broaden people’s minds. “People look to a company such as Lego – a company they love and enjoy – and think, ‘Hey if it’s OK for Lego, maybe it’s OK for me, too.’”
And his own response? “For Lego to do something so inclusive, so full of joy – it made me smile, then cry, then smile a little more.”
Ambition for Ageing podcast
The Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) has launched its very first podcast, and it’s available now for you to listen to.
Over seven episodes, they bring together different guests to discuss all aspects of ageing, looking at everything from social isolation and loneliness to the benefits of ageing and building age-friendly places.
Join host Kirsty alongside academics and policy makers, researchers, front line delivery staff and of course, older people themselves.
The episode featured here includes stories from older people, including members of Out In The City.
This podcast was recorded when Pride in Ageing was launched by Sir Ian McKellen in June 2019. Pride in Ageing aims to help ensure that Greater Manchester becomes one of the best places for LGBT people to grow older.
In this episode, we hear life stories from a number of different older people, who share their experiences of growing older as a member of a marginalised community as well as their experiences of discrimination.
We talk to older people from Pride in Ageing LGBT group (Michael Teo, Ian Dyer, Tony Openshaw and Philip Harper-Deakin), the Greater Manchester BAME Network and the Greater Manchester Older People’s Network about the impact of inequality and importance of diversity.
Read the transcript here