Stormé DeLarverie is one of the most important lesbian activists of the second half of the twentieth century. Not only did she confess to throwing the first punch at the Stonewall Rebellion — that was aimed at a police officer — she was a bouncer who volunteered to patrol gay and lesbian streets, to look after her “baby girls.” She did this work up until her 80s. However, Stormé spent the later years of her life alone in a nursing home with few visitors. She passed away in 2014.
David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution — who has supposedly completed “extensive research” on the matter — “never found any evidence to support the contention that Stormé DeLarverie was a participant in that event.” However, Stormé actually spoke about her involvement. “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience— it wasn’t no damn riot,” she said.
The narrative that excludes Stormé from the event that took place at 1:20 am on June 28, 1969, is a matter of misogyny, lesbophobia, and racism. I love my gay comrades, but the Black Lesbian Heroine isn’t a popular or agreeable narrative among the rainbow community. Many lesbians don’t wish to rock the boat and assert our place in the gay rights historical canon because we don’t want to be ostracized for it.
White lesbians like Edie Windsor, who was a heroic lesbian in her own right, died amidst widespread grief. Edie, “whose landmark case let the Supreme Court to grant same-sex married couples [in the U.S.] federal recognition for the first time and rights to a host of federal benefits,” according to the New York Times, died only three years after Stormé did. I can’t remember hearing about Stormé’s death. I do remember hearing about Edie’s.
I disagree with David Carter’s assertion that the “Stonewall Riots sparked the Gay Revolution” in the first place. A revolution occurs after long-existing tension between the oppressor and the oppressed. The gay rights movement in the second half of the twentieth century is no exception. It’s one thing to pretend like the Stonewall Rebellion “gave” us gay rights, but it’s made worse by excluding Stormé DeLarverie from the narrative. It’s symptomatic of a broader issue: minimizing the work of women, specifically lesbians, and especially lesbians of color.
Stonewall Wasn’t the Beginning
It is impossible to pinpoint when work towards gay rights started, but it wasn’t with Stonewall. Modernist lesbians migrated from their hometowns to become a part of flourishing communities in freedom-seeking cities like Paris, prior to the Second World War. Lesbians like Radclyffe Hall, who wrote The Well of Loneliness (1928), inspired a growing network of out-lesbians who could find each other in covert ways.
Nazis seeked to destroy lesbian communities and detain us in concentration camps. Many of us were raped and killed. Like today, our bars and community hotspots depleted into near nonexistence. Of course this struck fear into lesbians all over the world, but once the world got tired of paranoid, McCarthyist persecutions, lesbians rebuilt in a variety of ways.
Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), which was founded in 1955, amidst McCarthyist witch hunts and police harassment, was started by lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who wanted to make some lesbian friends. They held dances – which were illegal between members of the same sex, and fostered conversations about lesbianism that all women could engage with. DOB created the first lesbian periodical to be nationally distributed in the U.S.: The Ladder.
The idea that Stonewall single-handedly sparked a gay revolution, or that Edie Windsor could have achieved what she did (alongside others) without past efforts of gay and lesbian resistance — including the ASTRONOMICAL work that lesbians of color have contributed — is very misguided. In saying that, we should remember the Stonewall Rebellion. We should remember it without warping the narrative to fit a biased agenda.
If anyone was responsible for starting the Stonewall Rebellion, then it was Stormé DeLarverie. Julia Robertson writes for the Huffington Post, “Stormé DeLarverie was hit on the head with a billy club [by police] and handcuffed. She was bleeding from the head when she brazenly turned to the crowd and hollered “WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING?””
Stormé said she threw the first punch. “The cop hit me, and I hit him back,” she said. While Stormé didn’t seek being canonized as single-handedly inciting the Stonewall Rebellion, her contributions are usually ignored or tokenized at the end of the list. While it’s viewed as canonized fact when others have self-reported their — or other people’s — involvement in Stonewall, Stormé’s confession is reported as hearsay.
Stormé “rarely dwelled on her actions that night,” according to the New York Times, perhaps because her activist work didn’t end there. She was “tall, androgynous and armed — she held a state gun permit — [and she] roamed lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues and points between into her 80s, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars.” She wasn’t insecure about her contributions. She had nothing to prove.
Stormé didn’t want or need fame. She put her body on the line, putting herself in front of “ugliness” — harassment or abuse of her “baby girls” — including from the police. She was tough. “I can spot ugly in a minute,” she said in 2009, for Columbia University’s NYC in Focus journalism project. “No people even pull it around me that know me. They’ll just walk away, and that’s a good thing to do because I’ll either pick up the phone or I’ll nail you.”
Lesbians put up with a ton of “ugliness” today. So, the question is, are you going to “DO SOMETHING?”