11 – Stormé DeLarverie
“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.” Stormé DeLarverie
If there is one thing that we’ve learned from the last few women featured on this list, it is that the struggle for female equality often inseparable from other liberation struggles: whether that be campaigns against racism, economic inequality or, in the case of Stormé DeLarverie, homophobia. Stormé DeLarverie is known as the Rosa Parks of the gay community, and not without good reason: she was active in the growth of the LGBT liberation movement from its very beginning with the Stonewall riot of 1969 – though, as the quote above shows, she was far from happy for the incident to be referred to as a riot.
Stormé DeLarverie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1920, to a mixed race family – her father was white, her mother black – and from the start, her life was harsh. Though the family were not poor (her father had servants, and indeed her mother was previously employed in the household), Stormé was subject to much abuse as a child. She acknowledged that she was a lesbian at the age of 18 and performed as a singer, initially as a woman but later as a male impersonator. She was always a butch lesbian and travelled widely as part of an all-black revue, leading the proceedings as MC in male drag.
By the late 1960s, she was living in New York City and active on the Greenwich Village gay scene. It was here that she would make her largest mark on the world. Gay people in New York were often harassed and abused, especially in gay bars, which were frequently raided by police. On the night of June 28, one such raid took place at the Stonewall Inn, allegedly sparked when a woman, thought to be Stormé, was dragged from the bar by a coterie of cops. She scuffled with the police, who, despite having four officers there, failed to subdue her. She was hit on the head with a police nightstick and, as she bled, screamed “Why don’t you guys do something?” at the crowd of onlookers.
Do something they did. The crowd, which was predominantly made up of gay men and lesbians, began to fight back, flipping over police trucks and throwing coins and beer cans at the cops. Soon, the 500 to 600 people who had gathered vastly outnumbered the police and the officers found themselves trapped inside the bar, surrounded by an angry mob. The riot police arrived, but were met by a kick-line of gay men, dancing in front of them, whom they proceeded to batter with their clubs. The riots continued the following night and, in the aftermath, a whole range of gay rights organisations were founded, inspired by the community’s resistance to the police and their homophobia.
Later, doubt was cast on whether the woman in question was actually DeLarverie – “Nobody knows who threw the first punch, but it’s rumored that she did, and she said she did. She told me she did.” said Lisa Cannistraci, the owner of a lesbian bar close to the Stonewall – but regardless of whether it was actually her that sparked it, she was certainly there and certainly one of the main combatants against the police. After Stonewall, she became even more famous among the LGBT community of New York City, acting as a prominent member of the Stonewall Veterans’ Association, which continued the fight for gay rights.
She worked as a bouncer at lesbian bars, being described in her obituary as “tall, androgynous and armed – she held a state gun permit – Ms. DeLarverie roamed lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars. She was on the lookout for what she called “ugliness”: any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls”. She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero. She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.”
She worked as a bouncer at several Greenwich Village lesbian bars well into her 80s and eventually died in 2014 at the age of 93.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: