A Drag King with Zero Tolerance for Discrimination

Some say she threw the punch that started the Stonewall Uprising on June 27, 1969 and launched the Gay liberation movement. No one really knows who threw that punch, but Stormé DeLaverie (day-la-vee-ay) was an entertainer, a bouncer, an activist, and a drag king with zero tolerance for discrimination.

Early Life

Her mother was a black servant in her white father’s household. Born  in New Orleans in 1920, Stormé never knew the exact her date of birth. She chose December 24th.

Her father gave her a private education, and her grandfather raised her. Interracial marriages were illegal in New Orleans, but according to Stormé, her mother never wanted for anything.

Eventually, they moved, and her father legally married her mother.

Facing Discrimination

“I was a negro with a white face.” Everybody beat young Stormé up, the white kids and the black kids.

After one incident where “they left me hanging on the fence,” she wore a leg brace for a year. Her injury left a scar, and she remained crippled in that leg.

Her father finally told her that if she didn’t stop running, she’d be running the rest of her life. “I stopped running when I was 15 and I haven’t run a day since.”

After that she had no tolerance for discrimination in any form, she called it “ugliness.”

Entertainer

Stormé started singing and entertaining in nightclubs as a teen. Shortly after that, she realized she was a lesbian.

She toured the black theater circuit across the country and ended up in New York in the 1950s. In 1955 she became the One Girl in North America’s first racially integrated drag revue, a traveling show called the Jewel Box Revue. The one girl amongst twenty-five female impersonators, Stormé was the drag King and master of ceremonies from 1955 to 1969.

With zero tolerance for discrimination, she patrolled local gay bars to stop the “ugliness” and help anyone who needed food or bail money.

Fashion

At the time, New York law required people to wear at least three pieces of clothing that matched the gender they were assigned at birth. Stormé tried to follow the law. She wore women’s clothing on the street and men’s clothing at the theaters. She gave up following the law after her second arrest for being a drag queen.

Biracial Stormé could pass for white or black, male or female. She wore gender-nonconforming fashion decades before unisex styles became accepted, and is still a major influence on the fashion industry.

The Stonewall Inn

Brick storefront of the Stonewall Inn with the sign in red neon lights.
Another Believer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stonewall Inn, on Christopher Street, was one of many establishments owned by the Genovese crime family. It was the only bar for gay men in New York City, the only one that allowed dancing.

Through a peephole in the door, a bouncer tried to identify and prevent the underaged or undercover cops from entering the place. There were two dance floors with walls painted black and pulsing gel lights or black lights.

Police raids on gay bars were frequent, averaging once a month per bar. During a raid, management turned regular white lights on and the music turned off. Customers stopped dancing and touching and lined up for police to check their IDs. If you had no ID or were in full drag, they’d arrest you. Everyone else could leave.

It was 1:20 a.m., Saturday, June 27, 1969, when four plainclothes police officers, two uniforms, a detective, and a Deputy Inspector raided the Stonewall Inn.

The Stonewall Riot Uprising

It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience –

it wasn’t no damn riot.

Stormé DeLarverie

Female officers wanted to take customers in women’s clothing to the bathroom to verify their sex. But those dressed as women refused to go with the officers. Then the males refused to show their IDs.

Officers groped and kicked and forced their suspects into the wagons. 

A scuffle broke out. A “typical New York butch” in handcuffs escaped police repeatedly. The officer hit her with his baton. Bleeding from her head, she punched the officer. (Witnesses identified the woman as Stormé, but there are conflicting accounts even from Stormé herself.) Dragged toward the wagon again, the woman looked at the bystanders and said, “Why don’t you guys do something?” An officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon. And the crowd went berserk.

The next night, thousands gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn and the uprising continued.

After Stonewall

Stormé was part of the official formation of the Stonewall Veteran’s Association on July 11, 1969. She served as Vice President of the association from 1998 to 2000. Active in the association for the rest of her life, she also took part in gay pride parades and watched out for anyone who needed help.

She called herself the “guardian of the lesbians in The Village.” She fearlessly opposed intolerance. 

I can spot ugly in a minute.

Stormé DeLarverie

Through the 1980s and 1990s she lived at the famous Hotel Chelsea and worked as a singer and a bouncer. She patrolled local gay clubs and bars protecting others from anti-gay and anti-black prejudice

In addition, she also organized and performed at benefits for battered women and children.

Stormé patrolled and stood up against “ugliness” until she was 85.

After a long struggle with dementia, she died on May 24, 2014.

Her Legacy

Director, Michelle Parkerson, created the film, Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box

In June 2019, Stormé 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 US’s  first national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history.

An icon, an inspiration, and a staunch protector, Stormé DeLarverie was a drag kind with zero tolerance for discrimination.

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