Why We Must Celebrate Stormé DeLarverie

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
May 27 2014 4:54 PM

Why We Must Celebrate Stormé DeLarverie

Flyer from a fundraiser for Stormé DeLarverie
In 2010, the Greenwich Village lesbian bar Henrietta Hudson held a fundraiser for DeLarverie.

Stormé DeLarverie died on Saturday morning. One of the most intrepid figures from the early years of the modern gay rights movement, DeLarverie was a biracial drag king who may have helped to spark the Stonewall riots.* She was the subject of a documentary celebrating her life and courage. And as the scant notice of her death suggests, she has largely been forgotten by the gay community of today.

Why has DeLarverie been so widely forgotten? A few decades ago, she was a protagonist in the narrative of gay rights; in 2014, she barely gets a cameo. She deserves better. DeLarverie, after all, was widely thought to be the one who dared to fight back after getting unjustly clubbed by a police officer at the Stonewall Inn—and her bravery launched the single most important event in gay American history.* (Although DeLarverie is often said to have been the lesbian who helped to set off the Stonewall uprising, some historians dispute this claim. David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, who has done exhaustive research into the events of June 1969, says that he “never found any evidence to support the contention that Stormé DeLarverie was a participant in that event.”) As an out lesbian and a biracial drag king, she broke both racial and gender barriers and was often dubbed the gay rights movement’s Rosa Parks. She mentored generations of young LGBTQ people. And yet she spent her later years alone in a nursing home with few visitors except the social workers tasked with looking after her.

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Our heroes deserve better than this. But I fear that they won’t get it. Younger generations of LGBTQ Americans probably have a vague sense of what happened at Stonewall. But I doubt they’ll laud the leaders of that movement to the extent that they idolize, say, Edie Windsor. Their achievements seem so quaint in the era of marriage equality that it’s hard to relate and easy to miss the profundity. Who cares about cops raiding a gay bar when yet another state just legalized same-sex marriage? Older gay people might still consider DeLarverie to be the Rosa Parks of the movement, but ask any gay person under 35, and that title is likely to go to Windsor. Ask them who DeLarverie is, and they’re almost certain to shrug.

After news of DeLarverie’s death spread, my colleague J. Bryan Lowder noted that while “Edie Windsor is a wealthy white woman who, though brave in certain ways, was really a PR gift to a marriage equality movement already in progress. DeLarverie was a gender-queering woman of color who risked life and limb to take her stand at a moment when very little support, legal or otherwise, was forthcoming. A candle cannot be held.” I don’t entirely agree. I think it’s perfectly fair to compare both women’s achievements—but we can’t laud Windsor without remembering the work of the woman whose actions laid the groundwork for later triumphs. While Windsor lived a quiet life as a closeted IBM employee, DeLarverie shed blood fighting anti-gay cops in the streets of Greenwich Village. It was Windsor who convinced the Supreme Court that federal marriage discrimination is unconstitutional. But it was DeLarverie who helped to ready America for that ruling.

DeLarverie’s friends and admirers are hosting two memorial services this summer in honor of her legacy, and perhaps they will help to restore her reputation (or really, recognition) among the younger generations of LGBTQ Americans. That is, to be sure, fitting and necessary. But DeLarverie’s death should also serve as a reminder that the pre-marriage-equality days were more than just a bleak prologue to the modern gay rights movement. Every LGBTQ success today merely adds a new layer to the foundation constructed by DeLarverie and her peers; without them, we might still be trapped in the dark ages of fear and persecution. These were strong, audacious, resilient people. They deserve to be more than a footnote in our history.

*Update, May 28, 2014: This post has been updated to clarify that DeLarverie's involvement in the Stonewall riots is disputed by some historians.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.