In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Police raids on gay bars were common at the time, but this night would be different. The patrons of the bar fought back, leading to the six days that would become known as the Stonewall Riots.
Legend has it that the riot was instigated by someone who threw a brick at the police. Or perhaps it was a lesbian who punched a cop. Or, as the Berkeley Barb, an alternative weekly from Berkeley, California, described it:
“Ironically, it was a chick who gave the rallying cry to fight. Pigs were loading her into the wagon when she shouted to a big crowd of bystanders: ‘Why don’t you guys do something!’”
There are very few photographs of the Stonewall uprising, partly because it was not widely covered by the respectable mainstream press, and the coverage it did receive in New York’s tabloids, including the Village Voice, was riddled with anti-gay slurs. Over the years, many myths about Stonewall have risen and been contested, and if you’re interested in the debate over “who threw the first brick,” I recommend this New York Times video.
There is one person who multiple witnesses agree was present at Stonewall during the first night of the uprising, and who physically fought back against the police: Stormé DeLarverie, a Black, butch lesbian. She was already known at the time for her drag performances with the Jewel Box Revue, a touring company of female impersonators—and one male impersonator—who were regulars at the Apollo.
On that fateful June night, after Stormé finished a show at the Apollo, she came down to Greenwich Village, still dressed as she would have been onstage. She saw a man on the ground near the Stonewall Inn and was trying to help him up when the police stopped her.
In a 2008 interview with Patrick Hinds for Curve magazine, Stormé recalled:
“As politely as I could, I said, ‘Just a minute, officer, I'm trying to help this man.’ He then yelled, ‘I said, move along, faggot.’ I think he thought I was a boy. When I refused, he raised his nightstick and clubbed me in the face.”
In a 2009 episode of PBS’s In the Life, Stormé explained:
“I walked away with an eye bleeding, but he was laying on the ground, out.”
In the Curve interview with DeLarverie, Hinds wrote:
“I asked my last question hesitantly. ‘Have you heard of the Stonewall Lesbian? The woman who was clubbed outside the bar but was never identified?’ DeLarverie nodded, rubbing her chin in the place where she received 14 stitches after the beating. ‘Yes,’ she said quietly. ‘They were talking about me.’”
Photo: Stormé DeLarverie in front of two photos of herself at younger ages.
Stormé DeLarverie was born in New Orleans in 1920. Her father was a wealthy white man, and her mother was a Black woman who worked in his house. Stormé had a rough childhood, suffering bullying and abuse because she was biracial. By the time she was 18, she had realized she was gay, and decided to leave New Orleans for Chicago.
By 1939, she was singing professionally in jazz bands, but not in drag. She didn’t begin her career as a male impersonator until 1955, when she joined the Jewel Box Revue for what she thought would be a six-month gig. It turned into 14 years.
Today, we call male and female impersonation “drag,” but that term was not yet widely used in the 1950s. Male and female impersonation have a long theatrical history, and it was not linked with homosexuality until the early twentieth century, when ideas about gender and sexuality were also changing.
To prepare for her new gig, Stormé got a new wardrobe, but didn’t have to do much else. In the 1987 short film Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box, Stormé says:
“It was very easy. All I had to do was just be me, and let people use their imaginations. It never changed me. I was still a woman. …
“I modeled myself after me. All I did was cut my hair and change. I walked the same, I talked the same. I was king of the mountain, and I intended to stay that way.”
Photos: Stormé DeLarverie as a male impersonator.
After the Stonewall Riots, Stormé’s partner, a dancer named Diana, passed away, and Stormé stopped performing with the Jewel Box Revue. She became a bouncer, working at a number of New York City lesbian bars including the Cubby Hole and Henrietta Hudson, still watching out for her community. She died in 2014 at age 93, and reportedly carried a photo of Diana with her always.
When Stormé first decided to perform in drag for the Jewel Box Revue, she told In the Life:
“Somebody told me that I couldn’t do it, and that I would completely ruin my reputation, and…didn’t I have enough problems being Black? I said, I didn’t have any problem with it. Everybody else did.
“This is who I am. Remember the expression: what you see is what you get.”
May we all have a little Stormé DeLarverie in ourselves this Pride month, and always.
Join me for Kidlit Pride this weekend!
High School Is Murder: A panel about thrillers in YA, with me, Kristin Lambert, Tom Ryan, Ryan Douglass, and moderated by John McDougall of Murder by the Book
When: The panel is pre-recorded and will stream the weekend of June 27-28. See the whole festival schedule at kidlitpride.com.
Where: Watch it on YouTube
My Writing Diary
I often think of what Holly Black told me once: readers can’t tell if you had a bad day writing the scene they’re reading. Recently I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because writing feels especially hard this month. It’s not that the scene you’re writing will turn out perfectly at first; sometimes early drafts can read as labored. But writing involves a lot of revision, and when you return to that scene later, you can polish it up and smooth over the rough spots. You may personally always remember that writing experience as a pain, but if you do your job well, no reader will be able to tell.