“I’m a human being that survived. I helped other people survive.” – Stormé DeLarverie
Hot and fresh off the press… the second installment of our #WorthyWednesdays series!
This week we are celebrating the life and times of Stormé DeLarverie, the biracial butch lesbian who left an indelible mark on New York City, the LGBT community, and beyond.
Stormé was born in New Orleans at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. Her upbringing was marred by bullying and physical attacks due to her being born to a Black mother and a white father.
In time, her father sent her to a private boarding school in order to keep her safe. Despite his efforts, her life continued to be a rollercoaster of experiences, one being her time as a performer at the Ringling Brothers’ Circus when she was a teenager, where she would jump side-saddle from horse to horse.
When she was eighteen, she realized that she was lesbian and left her hometown for Chicago out of fear for her safety. After the move, her singing career began and she met the love of her life, Diana, a dancer and aerialist.
In collaboration with Doc Bender and Danny Brown, she created the Jewel Box Revue, the first racially integrated drag revue, whose slogan was “Twenty Five Men and One Girl”. Audiences were invited to guess which performer was a woman, and oftentimes, they could never tell. She said “The strange thing is, I never moved any different 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.”
Through her travels with the Jewel Box Revue, she came to New York City. Her use of traditionally masculine attire may have inspired other lesbians in the city to dress in that style, and she became celebrated and sought-after for her talent.
In 1969, Stormé found herself becoming the catalyst for the Stonewall uprisings. When a police man began verbally and physically abusing her, she fought back. As they beat her and took her away in handcuffs, she yelled out at the crowd, “Why don’t you do something?”. This simple question sparked the onlookers’ righteous fury and inspired them to react.
However, she never called for the spotlight for this act and only later in her life admitted to being the “Stonewall Lesbian”. In the early 1970, her beloved Diana died, and Stormé withdrew from the entertainment world nearly entirely. She began working as a bodyguard for wealthy families and a bouncer. She saw all the young gays and lesbians she befriended as her children, and even began patrolling the streets of West Village at night, in search of perpetrators of what she called “ugliness” and to ensure the protection of her community.
DeLarverie did not retire until she was 85 and she became a regular fixture of New York Pride and other LGBT events in the city. She would sing for special occasions, namely for events benefitting survivors of domestic violence. Stormé DeLarverie passed away in a nursing home in 2014.
Throughout her life, she made it her priority to protect and uplift those who needed it, and her toughness and talent helped pave the road for future activists and resisters. To learn more about her life, you can check out “Stormé: the Lady of the Jewel Box”, a documentary, or any of the sources below.