In earlier times, when those who were young, gifted, black, and LGBT faced the immense social—and legal—barriers that then existed against race, gender, and sexual diversity, some defied the statutes against same-sex intimacy, cross-dressing, and equality to be their authentic selves openly and publicly, whatever the consequences. Here are four of many.
Stormé DeLaverié was the “girl” of the “twenty-five men and a girl” that made up the company of Jewel Box Revue. Best known by her first name only, she was born in New Orleans in 1920. In addition to performing in the revue, she was its stage manager, musical arranger and “mother to the chorus.”
The first racially integrated drag revue in the United States history, it toured the theater circuit from 1955 to 1969, regularly performing at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater as well as to mixed-race audiences in many parts of the country. The production included songs, dances and theatrical sketches.
During the show, everyone performed in drag, including Stormé. Not until late in the evening, however, having been playing a man on stage, did she appear as a woman. The revelation followed nearly two hours of the audience trying to determine who exactly was the “female” among the performers, exposing the erroneous, restricting mythology of what constitutes “true” femininity and “true” masculinity.
Stormé was at the Stonewall Inn the night of June 28, 1969, when its patrons fought back against police aggression. She did not believe the events that followed should be called the “Stonewall Riots,” however. “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience,” she said almost 50 years later. “It wasn’t no damn riot.”
After Stonewall, she provided security for several lesbian clubs in New York and became a volunteer street patrol worker, the “guardian of lesbians in the Village.” Constantly “on the lookout for what she called ‘ugliness:’ any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her ‘baby girls,’ ” the New York Times reported when she died in 2014, she was, concluded the newspaper, “a true gay superhero.”
Phil Black was born in Pittsburgh around the turn of the 20th century. In 1924, dressed as a woman, he and a friend attended a drag ball, where they won first prize as best couple. Friends encouraged him to become a professional female impersonator. He appeared in local clubs for a few years, then joined the touring company of Shufflin Sam from Alabam,“The World’s Greatest Colored Musical Comedy.”
After six years with the show, Black moved to New York. In 1945 he organized and hosted the first Funmakers’ Ball. Usually held at the Rockland Palace on 155th Street on Thanksgiving night, it attracted hundreds of participants, from many backgrounds, and often thousands of onlookers. Police “winked” at the statute “prohibiting men dressing as women,” but revelers “promptly at midnight, in accordance with state law … hitched up their gowns and went home.”
Like Stormé, Angie Stardust was a member of the Jewel Box Review. Born Mel Michaels in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in Harlem, New York, she began performing when she was 14 years old. In 1974 she moved to Europe, finally settling in Hamburg. For a while she managed Crazy Boys, the first men’s striptease theater in Germany, then opened her own nightclub on the second floor of Schmidt’s Tivoli on the Reeperbahn. It became a Hamburg institution and she became an entertainment legend, Europe’s transgender “Big Mama of Soul.”
Wearing flowing dresses, her long fingernails painted red, she sang standards of soul and jazz, pop, and musical theater. She also improvised, and flirted with her audience. She appeared in four films, including Rosa von Praunheim’s cult classic City of Lost Souls, and made numerous recordings. She died in 2007.
Born Benjamin Edward Knox in North Florida in 1957, actress, author, and performer Brenda Dale Knox legally changed her name to The Lady Chablis in the 1990s. Early in her career as an entertainer, she won numerous titles in drag pageantry, including Miss Dixieland and Miss Gay World (1976), Grand Empress of Savannah (1977), and Miss Sweetheart International (1989).
Performing for many years at Club One in Savannah, Georgia, she was a local celebrity until John Berendt’s best-selling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made her world famous. She appeared in San Francisco in 1996 in a “jazz concert” tour, produced by Jack Wrangler, that featured personalities mentioned in the book, and played herself in the film adaptation.
She became and remains a role model to others, inspiring them to overcome the hurdles they faced to be accepted for themselves. “I was captivated seeing an actual black trans woman in a major Hollywood motion picture killing it,” wrote transgender actress Laverne Cox. She “represents a generation of trans women entertainers we must never forget.”
What a party they must be having together now. Brown producing the most extravagant drag balls ever. Stormé introducing the talent. Angie and the Lady Chablis performing for the audience. The greatest show in heaven.
Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors