Heroes of the Stonewall Rebellion
Written by James Melanson, Paintings by Liz Rhaney
Storme Started It!” - The Life and Times of the Rosa Parks of Stonewall
Storme Delarverie (pronounced De-la-vee-yay) was born in 1920 in New Orleans. Her parents were not issued a birth certificate, because interracial marriage was illegal (her mother was black, her father was white). Bullied as a child by racists, one incident left her in a leg brace, and another with a deep scar (from being hung on a fence). As a teenager, her father sent her to a private school for her own physical safety. At the age of 18, she realized she was a lesbian and she moved to Chicago, fearing she'd be killed if she remained in the south. For a period of time she worked in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, riding jumping horses bareback (and side-saddle).
In the 1940's, Storme adopted the name “Stormy Dale”, and became a successful. big band singer. In 1946, while touring in Miami, Storme met Danny Brown and Doc Brenner, the proprietors of "Danny's Jewel Box", a drag revue. Initially agreeing to help the revue for six months, she ultimately remained with the troupe for six years. Storme integrated the troupe, making it the first racially integrated drag revue in the country, and the group became known as "The Jewel Box Revue". Stome performed as the group's MC, wearing male drag (and appearing as a 'dandy') and singing in a robust baritone. Touring the black theater circuit, the revue became a great success, drawing in fans who themselves were superstars, including such luminaries as Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. Storme became so influential on the circuit, that lesbian fans began dressing in suits and other 'male' attire in her honor.
Along with serving as the show's host, Storme acted as a protector of the show's drag queen and transwomen performers, a role she extended to the community in general. She often stood guard at lesbian bars, to protect the patrons inside, and prided herself as a protective "baby sitter" of young LGBT street kids.
On June 28th, 1969, Storme, who had often voluntarily served as a protector of others, was one of many Stonewall bar patrons who waited for the police to arrive. Rumors abounded that a routine raid was going to be eschewed in favor of mass arrests of patrons, and the permanent shut down of the establishment. Most of the bar's patrons buzzed enthusiastically about creating a resistance. Black civil rights activists frequented the bar, and the black civil rights movement had sparked a national resistance that would be felt in those early morning hours at Stonewall. The marginalized groups who were patrons had had enough, and were ready to fight back against the police brutality that they'd endured for years. So it was that when police entered the establishment, a small group of butch lesbians immediately sprang into a protective mode of their friends inside the bar, and Storme took the lead. The police had a long history of beating LGBT patrons of gay bars, and Storme was not about to let that happen on her watch. Stepping up to the police, she was immediately struck, and then threw a punch that knocked the cop out. Four police officers grabbed her, cuffed her and then dragged her outside, where crowds of patrons began taunting the police. Each time Storme was forced into the paddy wagon, she jumped back out, and evaded the police while taunting them, along with the crowd. Finally, they began beating her, and she turned to the crowd yelling, "Why don't you guys do something?!", and with that, the crowd erupted, and the rebellion began. Storme, it should be noted, escaped, and was not arrested that night.
Often referred to as the "Rosa Parks of the gay community", Storme lived her life protecting others. For many years following Stonewall, she was employed as a bodyguard at the Henrietta Hudson lesbian bar in New York. She also organized events and performed at fundraisers for victims of domestic abuse. One friend referred to her as a "gay superhero", a loving, caring, and conscientious person who spent her life fighting bullies and protecting "her baby girls". Her stint as the MC of the Jewel Box Revue ended with the death of her partner Diana, with whom she'd shared her life for 25 years. Friends said that Storme was so deeply in love with Diana, that she never went anywhere without at least one picture of Diana accompanying her. Storme died in her sleep on May 24th, 2014. May she always be deeply loved, and never be forgotten.
Sylvia Rivera - “The Mother of All Gay People”
Sylvia Rivera was eleven years old when her Grandmother’s disapproval of her drove her into the streets. She survived by panhandling and through prostitution. At thirteen she met Marsha P Johnson, and her life changed forever. Taking Sylvia under her protective wing, Marsha gave her the acceptance and love that her biological Grandmother could not. Sylvia told people that Marsha was her real mother.
Sylvia became a firebrand of street activism. Joining the Black Panthers, she became good friends with the founder of the Panthers, Huey P Newton, who considered her a true revolutionary. She also became a member of the Young Lords , a group fighting for the rights of Puerto Rican and all Latinx people. Founded by Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, the group opposed the war in Vietnam (and American colonialist policies in general), advocated for Puerto Rican independence, and had close ties to the Black Panthers. Sylvia also advocated for the rights of the homeless, the poor, and generally for all marginalized and oppressed people. She was part of a loving community of trans women and drag queens, who clung together against draconian laws against ‘cross-dressing’, and also against a gay community that often pushed them to the periphery in an attempt to make them invisible. Her name “Sylvia” came from the queens and trans women who were her found family.
One could easily argue that Stonewall, at which Sylvia joined her mother Marsha in wreaking havoc against police brutality, was the least of her activism over the course of her life. After Stonewall, she helped found the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. She also founded STAR (along with Marsha), a group that sought to help kids and transwomen leave the streets and prostitution, and to protect them, feed, and care for them. She, along with Jackie Hormona, had been involved in the anti-war movement, and she was a fighter for women’s rights in the second wave Feminist movement. In the eighties she focused on fighting for people living with HIV/AIDS who had been made homeless because of discrimination and bigotry.
Despite all of this, Sylvia was sometimes vilified by the gay community. At the 1970 march following Stonewall, she had been told she could only participate by marching at the back of the event. She, Marsha P, and Miss Major, quickly made their way through the crowd, and Sylvia stormed the stage. Booed by some in the crowd, as she got up on the stage, Sylvia chastised the crowd for trying to silence the very people who had led the rebellion. As she left the stage, she was physically assaulted, blood streaming down her face. But time elevated Sylvia to the place of honor that she deserved, with people coming to the realization that this remarkable woman had created space for LGBT freedom and “Gay Power!” to happen. At the millennium march in 2000, Sylvia was rightly dubbed “the mother of all gay people” for her loving courage, tenacity, and her refusal to let marginalized people be silenced.
Marsha P. Johnson – “The Mayor of Greenwich Village”
Marsha was born on August 24th, 1945. Homeless, as a young adult, she became a beloved figure in the Greenwich Village community, and she protected and cared for the street kids who lived there as if she were their mother. An African-American transwoman, she was involved in many of the causes of the day, including the black civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the disability rights movement. Sylvia Rivers, who was thirteen when she met Johnson, considered Marsha her true mother. Surviving the streets through prostitution and panhandling, Marsha tried to protect street kids from having to endure the same fate, and in time, founded a shelter, with Sylvia Rivera, for the Christopher Street park kids, and for homeless trabswomen.
A vibrant and delightful character, Johnson originally went by the name “Black Marsha”, but changed it after a judge dismissed charges against her when he was charmed by her catch phrase, “pay it no mind”. That became her middle initial, and she chose her last name from her favorite restaurant, Howard Johnson’s.
On the night of the Stonewall rebellion, Marsha sat inside the bar, in the cramped quarters near the bar. The police arrived, and began arresting people inside the bar, as a group of butch lesbian women resisted. As police dragged Storme Delarverie from the bar, Marsha hurled a shot glass into the bar’s long mirror, shattering it, while shouting “I got my civil rights!”. This has been called “the shot glass heard around the world” as it immediately invigorated the patrons inside that room in the bar (while Storme started the riot outside, in the streets). Jackie Hormona immediately reacted, and the fight against the police inside the bar began. In the back room, where Raymond Castro was being handcuffed, he pushed himself into the arresting officers knocking them both to the ground. The rebellion was in full swing.
On the second night of the rebellion, Marsha climbed a tree above a police cruiser, and dropped a bag of bricks into the windshield, shattering it. Alongside the drag queens, street kids, and other marginalized rioters of Stonewall, Marsha and her friends Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major were an unstoppable freedom force. Drag Queens and Trans women joined in kick lines, singing stinging rebukes of the police, jaunty versions of “We Shall Overcome”, and catchy jingles celebrating the beauty of queer rebellion. Street kids evaded people by ducking into alleys, and patrons shattered the Stonewall’s windows with bricks. People pitched pennies at the police, mocking them, and hurled rocks at them from the grounds around the bar. The days of acquiescence to police brutality were over...a new Queer day had arisen.
Marsha’s involvement in the riots was pivotal. Many of the instigators of the rebellion had been involved in the black civil rights movement, and they were also beloved fixtures of the Stonewall. And no one more so than Marsha P Johnson, a person who was seen as kindness and compassion personified. As activist Victoria Cruz once noted, “Everybody loved her”.
Eventually Marsha moved in with her friend activist Randy Wicker, and they formed a family, fostering a kid who they’d rescued from the streets. Wicker said that Marsha was a great educator, particularly around trans rights, stating that he’d been transphobic when he met Marsha, but that she’d opened his eyes up to the truth.
Marsha continued in her role as an activist throughout her life. She and Sylvia Rivera founded STAR (Street Transvestites (later Transgender) Action Revolutionaries). Huey P Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, said that STAR was a truly revolutionary group Marsha remained active in black civil rights activism, and, in the eighties, became an activist with ACT UP New York.
In July of 1992, Marsha’s body was found, and she was presumed murdered. The case was never solved. But Marsha lives on in the hearts of the many who love her, and in LGBT+ history, as a pivotal figure in the fight for LGBT+ rights.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy- “Mama” to all Transwomen of Color
Miss Major is certainly not finished being fierce. Officially retired in 2015, she continues to be a powerful advocate for transwomen of color, the woman whom many refer to as “Mama”.
Born on October 25th, 1940, Miss Major still serves as the Executive Director of the “Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project”, which offers assistance to transgender people who are incarcerated. Long a critic of the prison industrial complex, and of the racist and transphobic ‘justice’ system, the group was founded to directly address the disproportionate imprisonment of both transgender people, in general, and of transwomen of color, specifically.
Bullied as a young person, Miss Major soon found refuge in the Chicago drag balls, where queer people dressed to the nines, and celebrated their extravagant, flamboyant beauty. She also began questioning her gender identity, often feeling at a loss because of the lack of language with which to express her true, magnificent self. But she would become one of the leaders of that important change.
Expelled from two universities for expressing her true gender identity, she relocated to New York, only to discover that many gay bars there barred admittance to transwomen. Enter the Stonewall. At the Stonewall, she remarked that, “We could go to Stonewall and everything would be fine, we didn't have to explain ourselves.”
A leader in the Stonewall rebellion, Miss Major was struck in the head by a cop, arrested and incarcerated. While in custody, she was assaulted by a cop, who broke her jaw. But she remained undaunted. A year after Stonewall, at the first Pride rally (which she attended with Sylvia Rivera ad Marsha P Johnson), she was one of the participants told to go to the back of the crowd by white cis gay assimilationists running the event. She, Rivera, and Johnson quickly moved through the crowd, as the march began, shouting “Gay Power!”.
Eventually moving to San Diego, she dedicated her life to transwomen who had been incarcerated, were homeless, and/or who suffered from addiction. She worked with a local food bank to set up direct services to these women, and acted as a tireless advocate on their behalf. After the murder of her friend Puppy, a Puerto Rican transwoman and prostitute, she became outraged when the evidence of murder was cast aside, and her death was ruled a suicide. It was then that Miss Major realized that “... we were not safe or untouchable and that if someone does touch us, no one gives a shit. We only have each other...That's how it started. Since no one was going to do it for us, we had to do it for ourselves.” In time, she was appointed to various groups fighting on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS. She has said that her greatest priority has always been “protecting my girls”.
Today, Miss Major lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she has founded the “House of GG (Griffin-Gracy)”. A historical retreat and educational center, the house is a tribute to the House of Xtravaganza, where she first came of age, and found a solidarity with other remarkable societal outcasts. In Miss Major’s word, the house is designed to be “...a retreat where I can bring the girls here and create a sense of family for our community”.
All hail the marvelous, indefatigable Miss Major.
Raymond Castro - A Person of Real Courage
Raymond Castro’s family moved to the United States from Puerto Rico when he was just five years old. As a young man he moved to New York, and studied to be a baker, a profession he subsequently embarked upon. On that fateful night of the Stonewall riots, Raymond was in the backroom dancing when the lights suddenly came up (warning patrons that the police had arrived and to move quickly apart). The police entered the room, and Raymond confronted them, at which point he was put in handcuffs. As they began pushing him to the paddy wagon, and patrons shouted “Let him go”, he pushed back against the cops, knocking both of them to the floor. Considered one of the moments that further energized the crowd against the police action, Raymond is remembered as one of the brave patrons who resisted police oppression. He was arrested and locked up overnight, and then plead not guilty on the grounds that the police had pushed him first. After being released from jail, on one of the subsequent nights of the riots, he returned to the Stonewall and once again engaged in a scuffle with police. His bravery was noted by the other heroes of Stonewall, and he is remembered as one of those who spurred others to action.
Raymond worked at Entemann’s Bakery, and later at Publix Bakery. He died of stomach cancer in 2010, and was survived by his partner of 30 years, Frank Sturniolo. His partner remembered him as someone who always stood up for himself, and as a person of real courage.
Jackie Hormona - Those Lost to History
One very sad truth, in regards to Stonewall, is that much of the information about the street kids who rose up in that rebellion has been lost to us forever. Among the most significant losses is that of Jackie Hormona. An activist who is credited as one of the people who rose up in tht first flush of the rebellion, little is known about Jackie Hormona, and even his real name is forgotten. A fierce, fiery drag queen, Jackie was involved in the anti-war movement, and was an active member of the Gay Liberation Front, post Stonewall. He lived next door to GLF c-founder in the eighties, and appears in pictures from Stonewall, as the white-blond haired boy in the striped shirt. (Please note...he does not appear in drag in these pictures, because drag was highly illegal. ) Along with Zazu Nova, Jackie is remembered as one of the drag queens who fought alongside his trans sisters. Yet many of the street youth were forgotten, pushed aside by assimilationist gay ‘activists’ after Stonewall had ended. The year after Stonewall, at that first Pride march, organizers told Trans women, drag queens, street youth, and other eaders of the rebellion that they were not wanted at the march, and could only walk if they remained at the very back. This erasure of pivotal figures continued, as gay ‘activists’ tried to create a sanitized image of their community, that they felt would be more appealing to straight bigots. Sylvia, Marsha, and Miss Major fought back, refusing to be consigned to invisibility. But, unfortunately, figures like Jackie Hormona, disappeared into the shadows, seemingly lost to us forever.
About the Artist
A multimedia artist originally from Savannah, GA. She works in video, photography, installation and design. Her work is about the balance between the personal and the communal- understanding how they influence each other and learning to walk on the border between them.