The name Stormé DeLarverie may not ring a bell, but it should.
Some have referred to her as “the Gay Community’s Rosa Parks.” She fought the police during the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and has been identified by many – and has identified herself – as the legendary “Stonewall Lesbian” whose assault by the police became the pivotal moment in the street disturbances that spurred the crowd to action.
Photo by Sam Bassett
She was also a singer who toured the country as the cross-dressing emcee of the famed Jewel Box Revue, in which she was the only female performer. Radio City Music Hall, the Apollo Theater, and the Copacabana are a few of the venues where she has graced the stage, either with the Jewel Box Revue or as the front woman of various bands. She was the subject of at least three documentaries, including Stormé, which was produced by her friend Sam Bassett and was screened on July 11, 2010 at Webster Hall and Stormé: Lady of the Jewel Box, currently screening at The Crossing Boundaries Exhibit in Manhattan. Now 89 years old, she resides in a sparsely furnished room on the sixth floor of a nursing home in Brooklyn.
During Pride Weekend on June 26th, I went to a STONEWALL Veterans’ Association (“S.V.A.”) meeting, where she was scheduled to appear. DeLarverie continues to hold the title of Ambassador of the S.V.A. I was hoping to chat with her about her experience as a queer gender-bending woman in entertainment and her role in the Stonewall Rebellion. She never arrived. I was told that the nursing home would not let her leave the premises. She also missed the Pride March, an absence that was so unusual and conspicuous that it attracted New York Times reporters to the nursing home to inquire and report about her condition and whereabouts.
Last week I went with a friend of hers, Hilary Farrell, to visit her in the nursing home, and what I saw was saddening. The interior of the facility was reminiscent of an institution. The sheen of the walls seemed like paper that had turned yellowish grey with age. Fans were nailed into makeshift wooden planks that hung precariously from walls and ceilings. The elevator took ages to arrive. One would never imagine that a gay civil rights icon, an entertainer who graced the stages of The Apollo and Radio City Music Hall, and one who gave so much of herself to the community would live out the final years of her life alone in such a lifeless and drab environment.
Her home for decades was the Hotel Chelsea, a building rich with history and one that, over the span of over a century, housed a string of artists, writers, entertainers, and colorful characters. Protected by New York City as a cultural preservation site and historic building of note, it housed legends and was itself the subject of legends. Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jack Kerouac, Uma Thurman, and Anthony Kiedis are just a few of the writers and entertainers who have resided in the building.
photo from a tribute to DeLarverie at the Hotel Chelsea
Photo by Rogers A. Hunt courtesy of STONEWALL Veterans Association