No one questions where Storme DeLarverie was on the 27th of June 1969; she was at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar where she may or may not have thrown the first punch when police raided the bar. She claimed she did to her friend Lisa Cannistraci. Whether or not she was the person then attacked by police is also unclear, but she was certainly there and witnessed the protests that sparked the modern gay rights movement and are commemorated every year in New York during Pride week.
DeLarverie cut quite a figure for decades. She dressed androgynously and carried a gun, stalking the streets of lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues to protect lesbians from violence or discrimination.
For this, and more, she is still remembered and revered by those in the LGBTQ+ community but few today know her whole story, even if they recognize her face.
DeLarverie was born in 1920, the daughter of a black servant and the master of the house in New Orleans. According to an interview she gave in 2001, because of this, she had no birth certificate and was not even sure of her actual date of birth. She later chose to celebrate her birthday on Christmas Eve.
DeLarverie had a troubled childhood in which “white kids were beating me up: the black kids were….for being a negro with a white face.” The violence got so bad that her father sent her away for a time.
In addition to facing racial prejudice, DeLarverie was becoming increasingly aware during her teenage years that she was attracted to women and called herself queer, which during the 1930s and 40s was used as a slur, from age 18. Faced with bullying at every turn, she said, “someone was always chasing me….until (that is) I stopped running.”
Determined not to be defined by her origins or limited by her sex, DeLarverie joined the Ringling Brothers’ famous circus as a teenager and rode the jumping horses side saddle until a fall resulting in multiple fractures meant she had to stop.
After this, she moved to Chicago, as she “feared she would be murdered if she remained in the south.”
In Chicago, DeLarverie began to perform as a female singer called Stormy Dale; performing was a way to escape from her life. With her seductively smooth voice, she was very popular. In 1946 however, she was made a job offer that was, in her own words, “guaranteed to ruin her reputation,” but her reputation was not something DeLarverie ever worried about.
She accepted the offer to perform in drag at what would become the Jewel Box Revue as part of a racially diverse troupe. In an era when racial segregation was still the law in much of the U.S., this was remarkable – as was the fact that they performed to mixed-race audiences at venues such as The Apollo Theatre in Harlem. She was the only female performer in a group of 25, and photographs show her dressed alongside them in a tuxedo or zoot suit, wearing a fedora and smoking a pipe. Unlike her colleagues, DeLarverie began to wear traditionally masculine on the streets, and soon other queer women were adopting her style of dress.
Striking to look at, DeLarverie began to attract public attention, with singers such as Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington becoming friends. The photographer Diane Arbus was intrigued by her and took the now-famous 1961 portrait of her entitled “Miss Storme de Larverie, the lady who appears to be a gentleman.”
Today gender-fluid dressing is increasingly common and DeLarverie is one of the first publicly visible examples. At the same time, she was always keen to stress that she was not a man, nor did she wish to be one. She was, however, a lesbian and utterly open about the fact. Her partner was a dancer named Diana, with whom she lived for nearly 25 years. They were a common sight at the lesbian bars and clubs of the era.
We might never have heard any more from DeLarverie, but in 1969, the Stonewall riots happened, and in a heartbeat, she was transformed into an LGBTQ+ icon, both for her presence there and her vocal account of the police actions that night. DeLaverie would always maintain that these were not riots but “a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience. It wasn’t no damn riot.”
Soon after Stonewall, Diana died and DeLarverie gave up performing, instead becoming a bouncer and bodyguard to both paying clients and “of lesbians in the Village.” She was androgynous, tall, and armed, having been granted a state gun permit when she roamed the streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and has been called a “gay superhero” for her stalwart defense of women.
Today she remains legendary in the LGBTQ+ community. Sarah, a regular at the Cubbyhole, still enthuses today about how she would “take no nonsense and firmly remove anyone threatening her girls…she was an absolute legend.” Her partner Lucy chimes in, saying everyone felt safer when DeLarverie was “on duty.”
“What would Storme do?” remains the standard by which lesbians in the Village judge any situation. DeLarverie went on to work tirelessly for the LGBTQ+ community and women’s rights in general, organizing fundraising and benefits for women fleeing abuse.
She was on the Board of the Stonewall Veterans Association for this and her presence at Stonewall. DeLarverie became, for many, the face of gay liberation. She attended the Gay Pride parade for decades, and today banners are still carried, marking the part she played at Stonewall and in keeping women safe. She lived at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, where according to Cannistraci, she “thrived on the liberal atmosphere.”
DeLaverie died in 2014. Cannistraci in her eulogy, called her “a very serious woman when it came to protecting people she loved.” Still, perhaps the last word should go to DeLaverie when she said, “I am a human being that survived. I helped others to survive.”