On Saturday May 24, in a Brooklyn nursing home, Stormé DeLarverie, the 93-year-old veteran activist who took part in the 1969 Stonewall uprising, died in his sleep. He was a founding member of the STONEWALL Veterans Association, and was one of the many who fought police brutality during the melee at New York’s gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, on June 27, 1969.
In the 1950’s and 60’s Stormé was the cross-dressing ‘drag king’ MC and singer of the famed Jewel Box Revue – a glittery night club drag extravaganza that began in 1939 and toured for decades. He was the only biological woman in the show, which was billed as '25 guys and 1 girl.' In later days Stormé became a ‘pistol-packing Momma’ who acted as bouncer in some of New York’s most popular lesbian bars.
In numerous tributes and obituaries, including one in the New York Times, Stormé (who pronounced his name ‘Stormy’ as in stormy weather) was called the ‘Rosa Parks of the gay civil rights movement.’ He was loyal to his friends and acquaintances and sometimes neglected his own needs while taking care of other people – gay and straight, young and old, people of all colors and ethnicities. He was funny, compassionate, tough, kind and courageous.
These writers remember several encounters with Stormé some years ago while visiting the City. We were looking for a place to come in out of the rain on a chilly May afternoon and found ourselves at East of Eighth, a bustling bar-restaurant. Sitting on his corner barstool was a grey-haired ‘character’ sipping a vodka on the rocks. We sat next to this charming tough older guy, introduced ourselves, and Stormé was off and running with his ‘stories.’ He told us that his routine was to walk down to this club-like neighborhood bar every afternoon at 4 from his residence in the nearby Chelsea Hotel.
By the time we had each finished our drink, (He was on his third or fourth, and barely showed it) our 88 year old “gay grandma” - or grandpa as she would like to be known- had filled us in about being a key player in the Stonewall Revolution of 1969. He quickly warned us “Don’t ever let me hear you calling them riots!”
In his recollection, he told us “I went to the Stonewall that June night back in ‘69 directly from a performance. I was dressed in my beautifully tailored suit and tie, and I stood at the bar having my vodka. All of a sudden the cops raided the place and started hitting everybody with billy clubs. One cop was kicking a little queen who had been knocked to the floor. I grabbed the cop by the back of the neck, and when he turned to hit me, I smashed him in the face and broke his nose!” According to our new friend, he had single handedly ignited the revolution!
(Note: we refer to Stormé in this article as 'he', because to paraphrase the STONEWALL Veterans Association website "if it looks like a He, talks like a He, walks like a He and acts like a He....it's a He!") www.stonewallvets.org.
We later we heard from other regulars at East of Eighth that we needed to take everything that Stormé told us with ‘a grain of salt,’ because another time that we encountered him on his corner stool he said, “Glad you found me here, because I just got back from Chicago where I was visiting my daddy who is in a nursing home there. He’s 108 but he still remembers when we lived in New Orleans.” (We do know that Stormé was born in New Orleans on Christmas Eve in 1920 to a black mother and a white father). He also told us that he was still working (in his late 80’s) at a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village, Henrietta Hudson, where he often went to work ‘packing.’ He was a one person street patrol who protected gay guys and women, “My baby girls,” he called them, as they walked from bar to bar in the Village.
In the next breath, he let us know that he had to go off to work “…uptown I work for a wealthy family. I watch their two kids when they go out for the evening, and I always make sure that my gun is loaded – I got a state permit, you know, but those rich uptown folks on the street are not to be trusted.” Fact or fiction? With Stormé, we never quite knew and didn’t care: he was a remarkable person, fearless activist and a delightful raconteur.
At age 88, he accepted the well-earned honor of being the leading the STONEWALL Veterans Association in the New York Pride parade. Instead of riding, as usual, in his blue 1967 Cadillac, he marched in front of his iconic car throughout the five mile route!
A celebration of his life was held at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home on May 29 by friends, Stonewall veterans, activists and friends whose lives he touched throughout his long and productive life,
His passion for justice made Stormé a lifelong, relentless and fearless advocate. On April 24, 2014 Stormé was honored, along with Edie Windsor*, by the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, and received a Proclamation from the Public Advocate of the City of New York, Letitia James. (* Edie Windsor: United States vs. Windsor, a landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision that ended DOMA and led to refunding of unlawfully charged estate taxes to Edie Windsor.)
The next time we see anyone sipping vodka on the rocks, we’ll be cheering a guy who contributed so much to the rights we now enjoy in our lives, and who helped launch the movement that is bringing us closer to full equality around the world.
Thanks, Stormé. The weather in our lives is less stormy because you were here.
By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle, Out and Travelin’