A self-proclaimed “gay superhero,” Stormé Delarverie (≅ December 24, 1920 – May 24, 2014, Pronouns: she/her in public, he/him in performance) was a drag king, bouncer, and neighborhood activist who outspokenly protected LGBTQ+ communities in our neighborhoods and Lower Manhattan. Pronounced “Stormy De-Lah-vee-yay,” she made a name for herself as the (alleged) spark that started the pivotal Stonewall Uprising in 1969. At the beginning of the riot, witnesses reported seeing a “mysterious butch lesbian” being arrested for violating a New York City law stipulating individuals must wear three pieces of clothing appropriate to their gender assigned at birth. Stormé has claimed to be this individual, admitting to either yelling for the crowd to do something or punching an officer herself, thus starting the days of protests and confrontations which followed. Whether or not she started the riot is a matter of historical debate and one that we may never truly know. But taking a closer look at Stormé’s life reveals a vibrant performer and outspoken protector.
Born to an African American mother who was a servant to a white homeowner in New Orleans, DeLarverie was never given a birth certificate because interracial marriage was illegal in Louisiana. Instead, she chose her own birthday, celebrating it each year on December 24th, Christmas Eve. Her mother and father raised her between Louisiana and California; however, she encountered violent and traumatizing bullying during her youth for being biracial. Fearing for her safety, she moved to Chicago at the age of 18 to explore life as an openly lesbian woman.
In the 1940s, Stormé was introduced to drag culture and began performing in female attire as singer “Stormy Dale.” While visiting Miami in 1946, she met Danny Brown and Doc Brenner who offered her a position as the MC for their drag variety show Danny’s Jewel Box, which would eventually travel as the famous Jewel Box Review. Stormé expressed an interest in performing in male attire as a drag king; however, the producers of the show originally tried to dissuade her from doing drag in the show. She didn’t care and performed in drag anyway. She signed on for a six-month tenure, but when the show started traveling, six months joyously became fourteen years. The show was billed as “The Jewel Box Review: 25 Men and 1 Girl,” and its New York leg was based in the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. The performers included 25 drag-queens, and the audience was tasked with guessing which one was the girl. Stormé identified herself as the sole drag king, donning tight pants, a loose jacket, and a fake mustache to present as male. Of performing in drag, she humorously remarked “you know, the strange thing is, I never moved any differently than I had when I was wearing women’s clothes. [The audience] only saw what they wanted to see and they believed what they wanted to believe.”
The Jewel Box Review introduced Stormé to New York’s LGBTQ+ social scenes in both Harlem and Greenwich Village, and she became friends with other well-known performers like Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Although she resided for decades at the Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd Street, she was a regular at lesbian bars and LGBTQ+ institutions in Greenwich Village. As her identity matured, she grew more comfortable with her gender presentation. As biracial and genderqueer, Stormé was a pioneer in androgynous fashion, frequently switching between male and female attire and passing as both black and white while in public. Her confidence and ability to transcend cultural norms brought her the attention of several artists, and she was famously photographed by portraitist Diane Arbus. In retrospect, her gender-nonconforming presentation is considered to have been a forerunner of later popular unisex fashion styles, and her openness helped to inspire other lesbians of the era to feel more comfortable in their own clothes and skin.
After leaving the Review, Stormé became a bouncer (or as she put it “a babysitter of my people, all the boys and girls”) for LGBT bars, most notably at the Cubbyhole’s original location at 438 Hudson Street until it changed hands and became Henrietta Hudson. Remembering the bullying from her childhood, she empathized with other LGBTQ+ individuals who were publicly harassed for their identities and vowed to provide protection for them. In her words, “I’m a human being that survived. I helped other people survive.” Like a superhero, DeLarverie roamed Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Lower Manhattan, armed with a concealed weapon permit and looking for what she called “ugliness.” After the Stonewall Uprising, she helped start the Stonewall Veterans Association as its Chief of Security, later assuming the role of the organization’s Vice President. She remained a neighborhood protector against anti-gay and anti-black violence until she was almost 85 years old, and, after struggling with dementia, she ultimately passed away at the age of 93 on May 24, 2014.
Stormé DeLarverie’s presence in our neighborhoods can still be felt today. Several documentaries and interviews from the early 2000s have captured her vibrant spirit, and, in 2019, DeLarverie was one of the fifty inaugural “heroes” inducted to the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor inside the Stonewall National Monument. If you’d like to learn more about important figures and places that contributed to Queer history within our neighborhoods, then we recommend you check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map. If you’d like to learn more about the history of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, then we also encourage you to read the Stonewall National Historic Landmark Nomination, of which Village Preservation was a co-nominator.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Elyssa Goodman’s “Drag Herstory: A Drag King’s Journey From Cabaret Legend to Iconic Activist” for Them Magazine
- William Yardley’s “Stome DeLarverie, Early Leader in the Gay Rights Movement, Dies at 93” for The New York Times.
- “The History of the Jewel Box Review” by Queer Music Heritage
- “The Unveiling of the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at Historic Stone Wall Inn” by the National LGBTQ Task Force.