Black Butch Wonder: The Clothing of Stormé Delarverie

There are many stories, opinions and think-pieces about Stormé Delarverie floating around the internet, many of them arguing what her role was in the Stonewall uprisings of 1969 or, more recently, her pronouns/gender identity. As a precursor to this post, I want to state that I have thought about these discourses and, as Delarverie was alive until 2014 and yet there is only one alleged source (that I can find) claiming that Delarverie used he/him pronouns, I will continue to use she/her in my writing. This is not to force Delarverie into a gender essentialist box – lesbian gender exists separately to heterosexist gender assignations, after all, and I firmly believe that lesbian womanhood is an experience which prioritises lesbianism rather than womanhood. Because of this, Dressing Dykes is always an inclusive space for he/him and they/them lesbians. My choice to refer to Delarverie with she/her pronouns is not a dismissal of these lives and realities. 

Stormé Delarverie was born in 1920 and worked as a male impersonator (or perhaps now we would refer to her as a drag king) for the Jewel Box Revue, a travelling cabaret, from 1959 to 1969. Later in her life she worked as a bouncer for lesbian and queer bars around Greenwich Village, New York City.1 She is often referred to as the “Stonewall Lesbian”: there has recently been debate around who “threw the first punch” at Stonewall, and it is very likely that it was Delarverie who prompted the crowd to fight back against the police after she was clubbed in the face by an officer. Her role was incredibly important, of course, but the events of Stonewall and all other protests by the LGBTQ community are not fuelled by individuals but the group; the community. DeLarverie was only identified as the “Stonewall Lesbian” decades after the fact because, in her words, “it was never anybody’s business.”2

The importance of Delarverie’s life cannot be narrowed down to one single event. In this post, I want to focus on the way that she dressed – her everyday lived experience of clothing and the world – and how we can contextualise and learn from it. I am analysing her clothing as that of a resilient, persistent, Black butch lesbian. 

In Audre Lorde’ Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, she wrote that

To be Black, female, gay and out of the closet in a white environment […] was considered by many Black lesbians to be simply suicidal. And if you were fool enough to do it, you’d better come on so tough that nobody messed with you.3

Fig. 1: Portrait photograph of Stormé Delarverie wearing a leather jacket, New York City (probable), c.1950-1969, JD Doyle Archives. 

Delarverie’s appearance exuded toughness. As well as being the “Stonewall Lesbian” and a bouncer for queer clubs – the force that protected those spaces from the homophobic world outside them – she was unofficial security for the apartment block in which she lived for years. Her clothing needed to reflect these roles. It was part of the security for the spaces she protected, as well as for herself. The most well-known photographs of Delarverie show her in suits, but in the photograph above she is wearing a leather jacket. The leather jacket, here, is a symbol of Delarverie’s strength, as well as her lesbian masculinity. In the photograph the leather lapels of the jacket shine, open around the dark shirt collar underneath. The jacket is the armour that overlays a more tailored appearance. It is evidence of her existence on the streets of New York City. Robin Maltz, describing seeing Delarverie on the streets of Greenwich Village, wrote that “I read her uncompromising masculine appearance and mannerism within a dyke context as stone butch ‘realness.’”4 Evan Mitchell Schares, writing about this very photograph, asserted that the narrative within it is of “a formidable take-no-prisoners Black butch lesbian activist.”5 

This photograph and the leather jacket pictured in it are evidence of the resilience of Stormé Delarverie. It is a certain kind of resilience, rooted in how she lived as butch when masculinity in women was punishable (literally by law, when women were required to wear at least three items of ‘female’ clothing), and when to be Black was to be a second class citizen. It was refusal to quieten herself. It is resilience that still rings loud today. 

I began this analysis by looking at Delarverie’s leather jacket because I believe it encompassed her experience of the world (as far as I am able to understand it as an outsider) in a single clothing item. Most frequently, though, she is photographed in suits. Perhaps the most famous example is the photograph below, which was taken by Diane Arbus in 1961 and titled ‘Stormé Delarverie, the Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman.’ Delarverie’s life as a drag king is interesting because although she was part of a travelling cabaret, when her drag king wardrobe blended into her everyday dress it was not particularly theatrical. On the contrary, it was smooth, sleek and simple. 

Fig. 2: Diane Arbus, ‘Stormé Delarverie, The Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman, N.Y.C.,’ 1961, Gelatin silver print, Whitney Museum of American Art.

Despite this, when she wore a suit it was still a spectacle, as evidenced by the title of Arbus’ photograph. A quote from Wendy Chapkis’ 1986 Beauty Secrets is poignant here: “What is simply masculine and unremarkable when worn by a heterosexual man, is butch role playing when taken on by a lesbian.”6 There is no question that Delarverie in a suit exemplifies butchess, but I believe that as she sat on that park bench for Diane Arbus’ lens she was not playing a role. What is extraordinary to some is for others just reality. Delarverie’s suits were not a parody of the white, heterosexual man’s sartorial language but a claiming of it. Her suit and tie, her polished shoes and her wristwatch belonged fully to her. In her own life, this would not have been an easy space to claim – yet, her image lives on in photographs and in memory. Stormé Delarverie stole the suit and tie from heterosexual masculinity in 1961 and clothed her lesbian body with them, and heterosexual masculinity did not even notice. In the words of Schares, “Delarverie strikingly rends mid-century gender expectations by the very nature of achieving them. The lady who appears to be a gentleman, indeed.”7

Fig.3: Photograph of Stormé Delarverie outside in menswear, New York City, c.1950-1969, JD Doyle Archives. 

Stormé Delarverie has become an icon, but as I mentioned earlier, her reality is important as being one life among many. She was not the only Black butch lesbian in Greenwich Village at the time, nor ever, and while her life was unique in countless ways it does not exist to be a token. In Louche magazine, drag king Beau Jangles spoke of Delarverie: “The history of all the amazing Black and brown stars from the past is obscured, and when you dig it up there’s something so exciting and validating about that.”8 By making Delarverie more visible, by analysing her lived experience as a Black butch lesbian through the way that she dressed, I hope that it places her in a broader history of Black butch lesbians. I hope that we can see her as one of so many multidimensional people who existed as their true lesbian selves, and that when we see an iconic photograph of her such as in Fig. 2 we also think of the photograph shown above, where she wears a cardigan, not a suit. She did not need to be an icon for her life to be radical. 

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Endnotes

1: Robin Maltz, ‘Real butch: the performance/performativity of male impersonation, drag kings, passing as male, and stone butch realness,’ Journal of Gender Studies 7.3 (1998), 281.

2: Grace Chu, ‘An interview with Lesbian Stonewall Veteran Storme Delarverie,’ After Ellen, 5th June 2018, afterellen.com

3: Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, (New York: Crossing Press, 1982) 226.

4: Maltz, ‘Real butch,’ 281.

5:  Evan Mitchell Schares, ‘Witnessing the Archive: Storme Delarverie and queer performance historicity,’ Text and Performance Quarterly (2020), 12.

6: Wendy Chapkis, Beauty Secrets: Women and the Politics of Appearance (London: The Women’s Press, 1986), 125.

7: Schares, ‘Witnessing the Archive,’ 6.

8: Beau Jangles, qted in Georgeous Michael, ‘In Search of Storme Delarverie with Beau Jangles,’ Louche Issue 1 (2019), 95.

5 thoughts on “Black Butch Wonder: The Clothing of Stormé Delarverie

  1. Great post! I’d never heard of Stormé Delarverie before but I’m glad I do now. It’s always so heartening to know that lesbains (and queer people as a whole) have always existed and lived their lives, no matter what time period.

    Like

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