From the Archives: An interview with Lesbian Stonewall Veteran Stormé DeLarverie

The conversation turned to the night in June of 1969 at the Stonewall Inn where she made history. Quite a few friends, writers and historians over the years have identified her as the tough cross-dressing butch lesbian who was clubbed by the NYPD, which evoked enough indignation and anger to spur the crowd to action. She was identified as the Stonewall Lesbian in Charles Kaiser’s book The Gay Metropolis, and her scuffle with the police has been mentioned a few times in passing by The New York Times in the past couple of decades. Then in the January 2008 issue of Curve Magazine she identified herself as the Stonewall Lesbian in a detailed interview with writer Patrick Hinds, an excerpt of which is below:

”[The officer] 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.” It was then that the crowd surged and started attacking the police with whatever they could find, she said.

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.”

And then, almost as an afterthought, I asked, “Why did you never come forward to take credit for what you did?”

She thought for a couple of seconds before she answered, “Because it was never anybody’s business.”

I asked her if she still remembered that night. She answered in the affirmative. After the cop hit her on the head, she socked him with her fist. “I hit him,” she said. “He was bleeding.”

A natural protector, she has worked as a security guard at a few of the lesbian bars in the city. I spoke to her friend, Lisa Cannistraci, who has known her for around 25 years. Now one of the owners of lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson, Cannistraci said that DeLarverie worked as a security guard at the original Cubby Hole, located at 438 Hudson Street, starting in 1985. Cubby Hole eventually moved to the corner of West 4th and West 12th. Then Henrietta Hudson opened at the 438 Hudson Street location, and DeLarverie continued working there until 2005. “Until she was 85 years old?” I asked her. Cannistraci said yes.

Footage from Parkerson’s film showed DeLarverie patrolling the premises with her trademark swagger in front of Cubby Hole, hugging patrons as they left and barking at guys who tried to make trouble by gawking through the window.

Cannistraci also added that DeLarverie was a licensed and bonded security guard who carried a pistol. At one point during my visit to the nursing home, DeLarverie mentioned that she used to carry a gun and was “a good shot.” She said she has handled guns her entire life; she even went into a detailed and humorous tangent about a tiny hand pistol called a derringer, noting that one could hide several of them in one’s clothes, and no one would ever find out.

DeLarverie continued emceeing and singing after Stonewall – at gay events and at benefits. Her friend Williamson Henderson, President of the S.V.A., told me that she hosted an annual gay nightlife event, The Gay Bar People’s Ball, where all of the movers and shakers of NYC gay nightlife would congregate and receive awards. “It was an event that was well known and a big deal,” he said. In Sam Bassett’s film, DeLarverie said that she continued to sing at benefits for battered women and children, remarking “Somebody has to care. People say, ‘Why do you still do that?’ I said, ‘It’s very simple. If people didn’t care about me when I was growing up, with my mother being black, raised in the south.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t be here.’”

Photo by Sam Bassett

What does the future hold for DeLarverie? Cannistraci told me that she is currently in the process of petitioning for legal guardianship of DeLarverie and hopes to move her into a brighter, more modern nursing home with a larger staff and activities for the residents – and one where a friend of DeLarverie’s already resides. “She was a protector of the community, and [her situation] is heartbreaking,” she said.

In the New York Timesarticle about DeLarverie, Cannistraci voiced her frustrations at the gay community’s apathy regarding DeLarverie’s plight.

“I feel like the gay community could have really rallied, but they didn’t,” said Lisa Cannistraci, a longtime friend of Ms. DeLarverie’s who is the owner of the lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson, where Ms. DeLarverie worked as a bouncer.
“The young gays and lesbians today have never heard of her,” Ms. Cannistraci said, “and most of our activists are young. They’re in their 20s and early 30s. The community that’s familiar with her is dwindling.”

DeLarverie’s situation is, unfortunately, not unique, and it highlights some of the issues faced by gay and lesbian seniors. It is unclear whether DeLarverie has no surviving family members or whether she has surviving family members but simply lost touch with them over the years. Many elders become isolated from their families, either because of family disapproval or because they moved away from their families to a big city with a large gay and lesbian population, thereby becoming out of sight and out of mind. If they do end up in a retirement home or nursing home, there is also the issue of whether other residents will have a problem with their sexual orientation. Furthermore, in many states, same-sex partners cannot be legally bound, and if there is no next of kin, one can end up being a ward of the state. If the Rosa Parks of the gay community can end up in a nursing home among strangers like other forgotten elderly men and women, it is certainly a wake up call.

As it was time for Farrell and me to leave, DeLarverie offered to escort us to the door, and struggled a bit to stand. We protested. “No, no, we’re fine!” She was having none of that, as she steadied herself and made a beeline for the door. Old age and a spill earlier in the week would not get in the way of good manners and chivalry. Farrell took her right hand, and I took the left, and we all walked towards the door together. She kissed us both on the cheek and bid us farewell. “Take care, babies,” she said.