Long Live the Legacy of Storme DeLarverie

Jun 27, 2014 at 9:20 AM ET

June 27, 1969, was just another night for Storme DeLarverie. Another night fighting cops in gay bars in New York City. Another night protecting her “baby girls” from the ignorance and violence that she saw on street corners and back alleys all over the city. It’s been said that DeLarverie threw the first punch that night outside the Stonewall Inn, sparking a rebellion that fueled a revolution crucial to the gay rights movement. In reality, it doesn’t matter when she began throwing punches; what matters is that when the cops began beating her friends and comrades on Christopher Street, she fought back.

Forty-five years later, Stonewall is a landmark in the social, political and cultural battle for gay rights—one that DeLarverie, the gay superhero of Greenwich Village, fought for her entire life. On a Sunday afternoon in June, the Stonewall is calm, doors swung open with rainbow flags flapping lazily outside. A neighborhood bar with black-and-white photos of pride parades past hanging on the dark, wood-paneled walls, it’s difficult to imagine a riot happening here now, among the pool tables where people chatter aimlessly and the Jackson 5 and Beyoncé pour from the sound system, yet it did.

But DeLarverie wasn’t just at Stonewall, she was Stonewall—a protective barrier against what she called the ugliness of a world that treated gay men and lesbian women like lesser beings. She was a legend in a community that, like many marginalized and oppressed cultures, has a real problem holding on to history. She died on May 24 at the age of 93, just days before the beginning of Pride month—a celebration that would be largely impossible without her nonstop, street-smart activism—and just a month shy of the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. She was a radical, bi-racial, lesbian drag king who could pass as whatever she chose to be—a man or a woman, white or black—in a time when people who shared her particular brand of nonconformity were rarely allowed to practice it.

Lisa Cannistraci was one of DeLarverie’s protégés and worked with her in the late 1980s at what was then the Cubby Hole, a popular lesbian bar that would eventually become Henrietta Hudson, which Cannistraci now owns. At the time, Cannistraci was a 22-year-old psychology major at St. John’s University who had been tending bar since she was 15, and she learned the legend over multiple Monday night shifts when DeLarverie worked the door as a bouncer. DeLarverie and her posse of butch lesbian elders held court in a corner of the Cubby Hole known as the “horny corner,” where they ruffled feathers long before rainbow boas became beacons of gay pride. They were tough customers, but over lengthy shifts behind the bar, Cannistraci picked pearls of wisdom from a true warrior.

DeLarverie came from a time in history when the mob ran gay and lesbian bars, and “underground” wasn’t a moniker for fashionable, urban, edginess. The Stonewall Inn and most (if not all) gay bars and clubs in the days before marriage equality were risky but necessary sanctuaries—places where a marginalized community could coalesce, but still constant targets of police brutality and random violence. “When she talked about Stonewall, she talked like it was a fight she was always fighting, except this time more people joined in,” Cannistraci says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, how important she was and all she’d done, but now I get it. There’s so much history there, and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with that. All that, and only one lifetime.”

DeLarverie was born in New Orleans on Christmas Eve of 1920. Her mother was her father’s servant, and as a mixed-race child she was not issued a birth certificate. This was the beginning of DeLarverie’s lifetime on the edge, straddling lines and pushing boundaries. “She lived on both sides of the coin,” Cannistraci says. “She refused to choose. She didn’t live as a man or a woman. She lived a Storme life, and I loved that about her.” DeLarverie did eventually seek out her legal birth records, and chose to be officially documented as African-American, but could easily pass for white, as she often did when she traveled with the groundbreaking drag show the Jewel Box Revue in the 1950s and ’60s.

She was the only female member and MC’d the shows dressed as a man. In the sepia-toned photos of DeLarverie on stage, she is the essence of elegance in fitted suits and bow ties, smiling slyly as she escorts elaborately dressed drag performers on stage, their costumes shimmering through the faded photo paper. Cannistraci says DeLarverie’s recollections of her time with the revue were some of the best moments of her life. She drew inspiration, as well as her grace and sophistication, from the jazz pioneers who held the stage before her. “I think she really identified with a lot of other singers, like Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday,” Cannistraci says. “Look what people like Billie went through, forced into prostitution at an early age. I think that’s where a lot of her fortitude came from. She drew from her own experiences as a kid, but she took a lot from the Jewel Box Revue, too.”

DeLarverie continued to work security well into her 70s, not only at Henrietta’s, but also unofficially at gay bars in the city that either didn’t have their own security or couldn’t afford it. Taso, a transgender man who called Henrietta’s home before his transition, says DeLarverie became one of the first truly masculine role models he had, an example of how someone could lead an extraordinary life in the face of adversity and still maintain a nearly sage-like gracefulness well into her old age. “I admired her for her butchness,” Taso says, “and she was a stunning butch.”

The butch lesbian stereotype is certainly loaded, but it’s one that DeLarverie not only defied, but to which she also gave an entirely different meaning. “I was always awestruck. It was so affirming to see her as a butch woman that had none of the ugliness that men can have and that some butch women adopt as their own. Her masculinity was always gentlemanly, but if you scratched the surface there was a badass underneath.”

With her well-worn but clean-cut shirts and her fondness for camouflage, DeLarverie often times looked like the town sheriff, and the fact that she packed a pistol only helped solidify her reputation as a no-nonsense vigilante. Cannistraci and Taso both agreed that while DeLarverie was never off duty, she was also never needlessly aggressive or overtly authoritative. Among her male friends at East of 8th, and her female friends at Ruby Fruit, she rarely spoke of her illustrious past with the Jewel Box Revue, or mentioned that she’d lounged backstage with Sammy Davis Jr. and scores of other legendary artists and performers who called Harlem their spiritual home in the ’50s and ’60s. Among her friends, she sipped Absolut Vodka from wine glasses, charming all the young, feminine bartenders with her casual coolness and coy flirtations.

DeLarverie’s presence was borderline electric. “Seeing someone like Storme, you just thought: Goddamn! She’s been living this life her whole life,” Taso says. “She was a life preserver for some people, especially for younger people, to see someone who walked the walk and talked the talk 24/7, in a time when you could get your head bashed in for leaving your house. That was powerful.”

Lineage is a complicated concept in lesbian communities, where women, increasingly outsiders among the larger, mostly male-dominated LGBT community, lack role models and elders to look up to. Taso was quick to cite Billie Jean King as an early inspiration, but also admitted that there’s a distinction between lesbian women and gay men that makes it harder to pinpoint and identify individuals who have made significant contributions to the gay rights movement. “I think lesbians have a tendency to sort of fade away. They go to the bars and they find someone and then they settle down. The guys are much louder and more visible.” This, he says, is why DeLarverie’s legacy is so crucial to the rising generation of women poised to push gay rights (and women’s rights) to the next level.

DeLarverie’s time at Henrietta’s ended in 2010, when it became clear that she needed constant care. A longtime resident of the Chelsea Hotel, DeLarverie began slipping into dementia in her late 80s, and Cannistraci, along with painter and visual arts instructor Michele Zalopany, who was a neighbor of DeLarverie’s at the Chelsea Hotel, took it upon themselves to care for the aging but still vital woman who had for so long taken care of them and the community they were trying to maintain in Manhattan’s gay and lesbian scene. After a disastrous stay at the Oxford Nursing Home, which Cannistraci called “nothing short of Shutter Island,” they began the long and arduous battle to gain legal guardianship, which they eventually won. Once that hurdle was crossed, Cannistraci and Zalopony moved DeLarverie to the Consumer Action Bed-Stuy Nursing Home, where she spent the remainder of her life.

“She lost none of her robustness,” says Taso, who would join Lisa on her regular visits to see DeLarverie at the home. “She was there in her wheelchair and all, but she was still so tough. If we were there and some guy, even if it was a nurse or an orderly at the nursing home, approached either of us, you could see it in her eyes. She would clock the guy without ever moving her head. She would sit right up, set her jaw and stare them down. Being a protector was just so intrinsic to who she was. She was still looking out for us.”

Kate Hoos, 32, never met DeLarverie. But she is looking to change the young, LGBT community that is admittedly unaware of it’s own history—a generation growing more and more distant from it’s revolutionary roots as Pride month garners corporate sponsors and the groundbreaking gender games of early drag is fodder for prime-time cable. “She sparked a riot. A fucking riot,” Hoos says of DeLarverie, her voice rising in excitement at the pure power of the words. “Someone who saw things happening all the time and said, ‘No. I’m not going to get clubbed by the police, and no, I’m not going to get raped in the back of a cop car,’ because that happened to dykes back then and no one talks about it. Now I want to be the person who stands up.”

From her soapbox at Rock Hudson, Henrietta’s bi-monthly queer-punk showcase that Hoos organizes, she preaches to the crowd on DeLarverie’s legacy. Though it’s only a recent discovery, Hoos says it has given her a revived sense of purpose within the queer community. “This is more than a rock show,” she says into the mic, “this is a community. This is a safe space for women and queer people to play music and be creative and not feel afraid or ashamed, or treated like some dude’s sidekick or groupie. This is for all of us.” The small but enthusiastic crowd applauds, and the show goes on. Perhaps a long shot from the audience who flocked to the Apollo Theater and went into a near frenzy for DeLarverie and the Jewel Box Revue, it’s nonetheless an important venue for a new breed of socially active and historically aware LGBT individuals.

Hoos has been in orbit around Henrietta’s for the past two years, and in January she became Cannistraci’s assistant. “I really started driving that point home a few months ago, about building a community and supporting each other,” Hoos says, sitting among the chess tables at Washington Square Park, a few days after the showcase. “The first time I made that speech at a Rock Hudson show, Lisa said she got chills.”

Despite DeLarverie’s physical absence, Hoos has slowly learned about her legend through the stories Cannistraci is passing down, and says they have become a new rallying cry for a fight that is far from over. “If it wasn’t for Storme, Rock Hudson probably wouldn’t exist. I’d probably be some unhappy housewife somewhere, living a totally marginalized life, as if my life isn’t marginalized enough already,” she says.

Covered in tattoos and wearing a bright blue hat over a thick, shaggy mohawk, Hoos says her ability to move through the world is a matter of constant perseverance. “I can’t just blend in. Neither can Lisa, and neither could Storme. But Storme kicked ass for 93 years. She was born into nothing and now she’s a legend. I want to keep fulfilling that work. I can only hope there’s someone waiting to come up behind me.”

Krystal Grow is a writer, photo editor and producer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kgreyscale.