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For decades, a seeming legitimate requirement asked for admission to Detroit gay bars was three pieces of ID, including one with photo selfie (in or out of drag optional). The request was intended to keep white bars whites only and, in some cases, men only.
(A touch of irony these days is that one of Detroit’s oldest bars has done an about-face in the past couple of decades, and is now almost exclusively a black gay bar. There was a time in the mid-’60s when the drinking glass of an intruder was audibly broken as the offending patron was leaving its premises. Tonight’s the night when your presence is not welcome, Mary!)
I was 19 when I borrowed a friend’s ID to go with some of my lesbian friends to the Silver Slipper, a dyke bar on Grand River, not too far from downtown Detroit. Straight tourists and gay men sat downstairs. Lesbians sat in a restricted balcony area. Segregation of another kind.
For my 21st birthday celebration I went with three of my Cass Tech gay art grads — Edward Flourney, Eddie Gonda and Gordon Bernard (aka Rita Hayworth). We celebrated that historic evening in my young life at the Flame Show Bar, located at 4264 John R at Canfield, near Wayne University.
The Famous Flame roster included such giants as Billie Holiday, Della Reese, Etta James, Dinah Washington, B. B. King and Big Joe Turner.
The Flame Show Bar, opened in 1949, six years after Detroit’s infamous race riot of 1943 — for which I was sent home for safety from Burton Elementary School — and was what was then called a “black and tan” club.
The nickname meant that whites were permitted and actually welcome to drink, listen and sway to the best of African-American jazz musicians, vocalists and soloists.
The Flame had ample space for larger groups, including my Night of Legal Adulthood, a very special, daring now-historic LGBT drag group. The Jewel Box Review.
The Jewel Box, started by gay drag devotees and one butch, power-punch lesbian, was kicked into its long-lasting show biz high heels in 1939.
Star of the Jewel Box Review was Storme DeLarverie, who was 19 when they joined what many have called America’s first gay community. Storme certainly was nice to look at and a first-class male drag persona. (“I think I could go straight for Storme!” quipped Ms. Rita. “Make that two of us,” added Eddie Gonda.)
As for Storme, they were more than just a storm. Storme was an LGBTQ hurricane! Her now-legendary tussle with the police — “Hey, copheads! I’m not taking any of your cuffs or your friggin’ bullhorns! Period! You got another think a-coming!” — ignited the Stonewall riots in 1969. She was 40.
Storme was born in New Orleans to an African-American mother and a white father. She’s now remembered as an LGBTQ activist, gay civil rights icon and entertainer whose career included the Apollo Theater, Radio City Music Hall and many LGBTQ venues worldwide..
She worked for much of her long life as an emcee, singer, bouncer, bodyguard and volunteer street patrol worker, and, as she liked to ID her remaining years and status (died May 24, 2014 at 93), “Guardian of Lesbians of the Village.”
(By the way, one of the lesbians of the Village at Stonewall Riots time was BTL co-publisher, Susan Horowitz).
The New York Times commented in Storme’s obituary, “Tall, androgynous and armed — she held a state gun permit — Ms. DeLarverie roamed lower Seventh and Eight Avenues, patrolling the sidewalks and checking in at lesbian bars for what she called ‘ugliness:’ any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her ‘baby girls.’”
An unexpected birthday gift for me that memorable coming-of-age celebration was — compliments of fellow CT artist Edward Flourney — a well-lit birthday cake, which gentleman that I was even back then, I declined to blow in public — especially in such a famous and decorous black-and-tan night club.
Best gift of all — still so very long-lasting in my memory — Storme later dropped by our integrated table and wished me a happy birthday and good luck to my round of friends! And a long gay life!
“May all your jewel boxes be filled with glitter and be-proud good times.”