In the early hours of June 28, 1969, something happened at a dive bar in Greenwich Village that sparked a revolution. New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, which happened with some frequency in those days. But that night, the gay men, lesbians, drag queens and drag kings who hung out there decided to fight back. All it took was one punch to launch the modern civil rights movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans.
The person some think threw that punch died 10 days ago. Her name was Stormé DeLarverie. She was 93.
DeLarverie was a drag king who performed with the Jewel Box Revue as its only male impersonator. The other members of the troupe, which toured the country in the 1950s and 1960s, were drag queens. To see DeLarverie stride the streets of the Village, as I did in the 1990s, was to see what you thought was a tough dude confidently making his way through the world. To talk to her was to discover a gentle spirit steeled by life experiences.
Perhaps the best chapter in Charles Kaiser’s 1997 book “The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America” (updated in 2007) is the one on the 1960s. His reporting and recounting of the events on June 27 and June 28, 1969, are riveting. And while the spark of the Stonewall Riots has many fathers and the details of who did what when remain in dispute, Kaiser believes DeLarverie deserves credit she never sought to claim for herself.
Outdoors in the summer heat, the mood was festive, but many eyewitnesses also remember a febrile feeling in the air. Several spectators agreed that it was the action of a cross-dressing lesbian-possibly Stormé DeLarverie-which would change everyone’s attitude forever. DeLarverie denied that she was the catalyst, but her own recollection matched others’ descriptions of the defining moment. “The cop hit me, and I hit him back,” DeLarverie explained. For the first time in history, “The cops got what they gave.” This had never happened before. . . .
Stormé DeLarverie remembered, “Stonewall was just the flip side of the black revolt when Rosa Parks took a stand. Finally, the kids down there took a stand. But it was peaceful. I mean, they said it was a riot; it was more like a civil disobedience. Noses got broken, there were bruises and banged-up knuckles and things like that, but no one was seriously injured. The police got the shock of their lives when those queens came out of that bar and pulled off their wigs and went after them. I knew sooner or later people were going to get the same attitude that I had. They had just pushed once too often.”
That same attitude, as DeLarverie called it, has fueled the LGBT community ever since. It demands our fellow Americans simply respect who we are and see our humanity. And it demands our government fulfill the United States’ promise of equal protection under the law. DeLarverie fought to make both those demands a reality. Because she took a stand 45 years ago this month, countless others have been able to find the courage to do the same and make our nation a more perfect union.
Rest in peace, Stormé DeLarverie.
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