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[00:00:00]

Heads up, everybody. There's one curse word in this episode. It's a good one, though. You're going to enjoy it. I'm Gene Demby. I'm Shereen Marisol Marjie. And this is Code Switch from NPR.

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So at this point, everybody knows George Floyd's name. Right. But there are, of course, so many more names that haven't made headlines or sparked protests in the same way.

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I think it's significant that we're in Pride Month and that we're fighting for justice for not just George Floyd, Viana, Taylor Marberry, but also for LGBTQ. Somebody just got, I think, two transgender who just got shot in the last week.

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Fewer people know about Tony McDade, the black trans man who was shot and killed by police two days after George Boyd was killed, or Dominique Remi Filles or remelted black trans women who were put it murdered two weeks later.

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And within a 24 hour period of each other, trans women are being murdered like every other day. Black trans woman. They face racism on top of sexism on top of the gender. February that it is. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 16 transgender or gender nonconforming people have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means this year. On June 14, our producer, Kumari Devarajan went to the All Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles.

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Thousands marched in protest against police brutality with a special focus on LGBTQ victims and the voices you're hearing there from that march.

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Black Lives Matter, period. So let me just make sure I list Black Lives Matter. Black trans lives matter. Black children matter. Black love.

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That same day on the other side of the country in Brooklyn, an estimated 15000 people participated in the march for Black Trans Lives.

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And the people at the All Black Lives Matter marched that Kumari spoke to. They were saying how marches like these make perfect sense.

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Black LGBTQ people are disproportionately victims of violence from both the police and from everybody else, and they've been fighting this fight for a long time.

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Queer rights was given to us by the Stonewall riots, which were started by black, queer, trans women, and they were riots. To be clear, the originator of the protest, they don't say our names enough.

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This week, we're bringing you a story from Brittany Luce, who is the co-host of the new podcast. Tonight, by the way, is now a show on Kibbie. And the story is about a name we do not see often enough. Stormy Daleville Stormy was a black, butch woman who is known for many things which you're going to hear about soon. But one is that when it came to protecting her community, she didn't pull any punches.

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Got enough problems? Keep walking. OK. So mental picture time. The year is 1957, and you're seated at the Apollo Theater up in Harlem. And the show's about to start. You know, the orchestra in the pit is tuning up and the lights are starting to dim and everyone in the audience is hushed and dressed to impress.

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So the band starts and lights come up and suddenly the entire stage is populated with 25 of the most dazzling divas that you have ever seen in your life. You know, in all different shapes and sizes and colors. I mean, you know, they have headdresses with feathers, crystals, cleavage just hiked up high and their eyebrow arches are like damn near touching heaven.

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And then the announcer who is kind of like the anchor for the show, makes an entrance, introducing the most unusual show and over to with Matt Harvey and his orchestra.

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And he's tall and in a beautiful sun cut tuxedo. I mean, like, whatever people think when they hear the word debonair like he is it. And he's got this rich baritone voice that just sails out over the crowd.

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And he leads the chorus of Showgirls into the show's signature song.

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You're watching the Jewel Box Revue, and like any other show at the Apollo, this is top of the line. But it's just a little different than their usual shows. The show is billed as 25 men and one girl. So most of the people on stage are impersonating women. And the audience is supposed to spend the show figuring out who the quote unquote real girl is. Toward the end of the show, it's dramatically revealed that none of the people high kicking in dresses was the real girl.

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It was actually the smooth baritone in the tuxedo, Stormy de Lafayette. From Gimlet Media. This is the not I'm Britney loose. Eric is out this week reporting other stories, but I am here to tell you about this woman, Stormy Davide. I kind of became obsessed with Stormi a while ago when I came across her photo randomly. It was this glamorous black and white photo, probably from the 1950s. And in it was a slim black woman in a tuxedo and she had short platinum blonde hair.

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It was styled kind of in a conking and she had smooth, pale skin. And this haunting gaze that just drew me in. You know, at the time, I didn't know anything about storms life as the leader of the Jewel Box Revue. In fact, I didn't know anything about her life. All I knew is that there was this this poise, this presence emanating from that photo.

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She seemed powerful and important, and she gave off the charisma of a Hollywood star, but I'd never heard of her before. So I started digging and I really had to dig.

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There are so few records of her and not a lot of people who know her whole life story. But the more I learned, the more astounding it seemed that I didn't know who she was. Everyone needs to know about this woman. And today I'm going to tell you all about her and how she moved on from a tough Southern upbringing to become a glamorous drag performer and a vigilante defender of the defenseless. A true American hero.

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So in order for me to tell you this story, we've got to go back like way back to 1920 and all the way down to New Orleans, Louisiana. That's where our hero, Stormy Belavia, was born on December 24th to a white father and a black mother. Stormy was born mixed race in the Deep South. She was not issued a birth certificate. This is stormiest friend of over 25 years, Lisa Cannister Rossi.

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Over the years, Stormy shared a lot with Lisa, though she always identified as black because she was very close with her mom. You know, being mixed race, she was taunted by the white kids, just taunted by the black kids. She was always swimming upriver river. And, you know, she she was she was attacked multiple times, almost near death when she was a kid, like, beaten to a pole.

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Here's how Stormy described her childhood in a story from a 2009 interview. There are some things that they did to people who are mixed blood. You have to remember, my mother was black and I have a white faith, one criminal and one like me. God took me years to get the brush off my leg. I've got a big sky here where they left me hanging on a fence my own way.

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But having a white father and a black mother was not the only way Stormi knew she was different.

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She knows she wasn't attracted to men. And but, you know, you could you could really be out. Probably she probably would be murdered. And so she needed to leave the south and she moved to Chicago and she went there as a woman who dress like a man.

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Chicago gave Stormi a fresh start. She lived as a straight man during that time, you see, being a masculine presenting queer woman was dangerous and even illegal in a lot of places. But living as a straight man let Stormy present herself how she wanted, and she looked good.

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Here's Lisa again.

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I mean, my story was gorgeous. I mean, I don't think she looked like James Dean, but I think she had the swagger of James Dean, like she had that natural, just quiet, sexy look. She was in her 20s now.

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She wasn't getting bullied and harassed anymore. She got a shot at a normal life. She even got to boot.

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She had a beautiful, beautiful partner. Her name was Diana. And Diana was a dancer. And Diana would have her girlfriends over the house and they would play cards in the kitchen and story would have her friends over and they would hang out in the den and drink brandy and smoke cigars. It was like that.

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Chicago also gave Stormi a chance to really come into her own as a singer. You see, she'd always loved performing and she sang a lot growing up in New Orleans. But back then, she had to do it in a sensible dress. Colonel Bob, string of pearls, you know, women's clothing.

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But being in Chicago so far from home gave her the freedom to tap into the look that would eventually make her famous. She went from looking like a long lost Andrew sister to wearing a long, slim suit, close cropped hair. And she had this 10 mile stare that so I have been told, used to knock the ladies dead.

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And it was looking like this that Stormy took her act on the road in her travels.

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Stormy met two men who had changed her life forever.

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Their names were Doc Benter and Danny Brown, and they were the creators of the Jewel Box Revue. They built something of a small empire around their traveling drag reviews in the 30s and 40s, and they played clubs in Miami, Cleveland, Detroit. They played all over the country. Danny and Doc wanted to elevate what they called the art of female impersonation. They wanted to bring it out of sort of the burlesque vaudeville scene and take it to like, you know, like the big stage.

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And in Stormi, they basically found the perfect M.C. Stormi joined the show as M.C. and kind of their de facto musical director in 1955. And she stayed for 14 years. And over that time, Stormi became a hit. Here's staff, his friend Lisa, again. She was one of my favorite subjects for Diana Arbus. The photographer Susanna's Tech took some really amazing shots of her story, would talk about her affiliations with Dinah Washington. You know, some of the old singers, Nina, Sam Malone, because she traveled in those circles, you know, those sophisticated African-American circles.

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And, you know, she was she was highly regarded, you know, as was she was royalty. You know, she was royalty. The show was a huge success.

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And it played all over, you know, big name theaters and also chitlin circuit venues, including the Apollo Theater, where they played several times a year.

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First and foremost, the jukebox revue was a top notch performance project. That's number one. Everything about it, the set, the costumes and the performers were top notch.

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This is Merida done. She's like almost hyperactive and she's tall and she's like boozing with style. She used to be a model and she saw the jewel box of you, like, quite a few times as a young girl growing up in Harlem. And to this day, she has nothing but praise for the show.

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No amount of money was spared and make a Ng'andu box for you. I mean, it was top of it. If you needed a mink coat, it had a mink coat. If it needed a zebra, it had a zebra. What about the singing and the dancing? We don't want to do box. We view you as a go and get if you couldn't sing or dance. They were ladies of gorgeous dimensions.

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The way you try to see now, like the rules of now, they were then at one point in our talk, I pulled out a few old photographs just to jog your memory. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Describe to me. Look at her. Look at what she has on.

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Oh yeah. And I see there's there's a drag performer right in the center. And with a huge headdress. This is before everything is not just the head.

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Just look at the shoes. Look at the whole outfit. Take a good look.

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And there's this as you remember it. Yes, definitely. That's why I was excited.

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This I came from fashion so that you could still excite me. Good.

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OK. So call me country. But when I learned about this, I was like, what? Like there's a whole generation of baby boomers whose parents took them to a Sunday matinee drag show as a family activity. I needed to know how this could have been acceptable, given what we know about how people treat LGBT people to this day. So I called up this guy.

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My name is John Reddick. I was born in Philadelphia, educated Ohio State.

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John is a Harlem historian. And he says that playing with gender is about as old as time for black folks.

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When the main performers at the Apollo was this comedian named Moms. Maybe he was gay. And when you see your personal pictures, he dressed like a man.

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And so everyone within her, her peer group knew she was gay.

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But he says that that doesn't mean that the 50s and the 60s were a more accepting time for queer black people than me, remember? It was fine on the stage, but once they left the theater, it was a different story.

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Technically, those performers could not go on the street dress, gender cross. They could get arrested. I think into the 60s or or so they could get arrested. So, you know, it had to be so set in the inner you know, in the end, it's like judged performance. You know, it's the masses being played up. Not really. The sexuality is like a masquerade ball or whatever. You know, the idea that you're going to be this other whatever is knowing that, you know, this is a man or a woman.

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But even if it was just performance sanitized from sexuality, the jewel box review gave Stormi a place to be herself. And the 50s and 60s were a pretty happy time for her. She traveled all over the country performing for adoring audiences as herself. She was living in New York City. She had stopped pretending to be a straight man. And not only did she have the love of Diana, her girlfriend, but she had the love and respect of her cast mates, many of whom are guys 10 or 20 years her junior.

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She referred to them as her boys. It was like a chosen family. And she considered herself the one who protected that family. Here's Stormi again talking about her former cast mates.

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They were nice young men and they were my friends. They did everything I asked them to do. They showed great respect and I respected them as performers and as human beings. Stormy had this little corner of the world set up the way she wanted. You know, like this.

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This safe, warm little space for black or queer or creative people who, you know, kind of like her, they never quite fit in anywhere else.

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But then something happened, something that made her realize she needed to protect that little world.

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That is coming up after the break. Parents ever wish you had a coach or a fairy godmother for when your kids hit you with those really tough questions? Well, NPR's Life Kid has tons of episodes to help you through the hardest parenting moments. Listen and subscribe to life. On June 28, 1969, Stormi was at the Stonewall Inn. Hanging with some friends. The Stonewall was a popular West Village bar and also an unofficial community meeting place for young queer folks in New York at that time.

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That night, police raided the bar.

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Now, a raid in a gay hangout wasn't unusual for that time. It was illegal to cross dress. And illegal for gay people to gather in public. And cops would target certain bars looking for anyone breaking those laws. You know, they kick people out. They take their liquor and look on their I.D. to see whether their listed gender matched the way that they were dressed. It was humiliating and subhuman treatment, but it was the law back then. But this night was different.

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After years of just complying with the usual hassling and arrests, folks got pissed. They refused to hand over their I.D.. The people who the cops had to let go, they decided to stick around. And when the police started grabbing people and forcing them out of the bar, they fought back. Stonewall was a turning point in the LGBT rights movement. People were speaking up saying, you know, it's not enough to eke out an existence in the margins in the theater or in the bar scene.

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They wanted full equality. A lot of people say that Stormi threw the first punch at Stonewall. Of course, LGBT history is rarely recorded, and Stormy herself was pretty coy about the whole thing. But according to pretty much everyone I talked to, punching a cop for hassling her friends is exactly the type of person that Stormi was. Here's Lisa Storm's friend from earlier in the show.

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You know, I think her her experience as a young person and being, you know, beat up and being not accepted for who she was at all that lived inside her.

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And she turned it around to protect the community like she she recycle it. All that anger, you know, when she used it for good. 1969 was a big year of change for Stormi.

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We can't say for sure if there's a correlation between these two events. But about two months after Stonewall Stormi quit the Jewel Box Revue that same year. She also lost the love of her life, her partner of over 25 years, Diana.

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I know that that Diana's death devastated her. She always carried a picture of her and her wallet. She was beautiful, beautiful woman.

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So Stormy is no longer touring with the Jewel Box Revue. She's angry at the way her community is being treated. And she's heartbroken. And this is when she enters a phase of her life where her own happy world isn't enough. She wants to take that feeling of love and protection that she has her own community and bring it to the streets. So she joins an advocacy organization for LGBT rights. And she decides to become a bodyguard during the day as she washes over rich New York families.

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But at night, she was watching out for her own. She worked the door as lesbian and gay bars with an iron fist and a pistol on her hip. Here's some footage of her from that period. Outside the lesbian bar called the Cubbyhole.

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No, guys, that isn't a fishbowl. Keep walking. Keep walking. OK, ok. OK. OK. All right. All right. No problem, guys. No problem. OK, fine. Let's keep walking. We've got enough problems. Keep walking.

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We continued to protects patrons of lesbian and gay bars for over 30 years. She lay down the law and she was known for watching out for younger queer women. She became known as kind of a cowboy of the West Village. Again, here's Swami's friend, Lisa Cannister.

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Don't you mess with my baby girls. I mean, that's what she would say. Things she would be like. Trust me, you want to keep walking and put her hand on her hip. Sometimes she would follow them off the block.

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I mean, she was amazing. So here's the thing about Lisa.

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She was not only Stormy is good friend. They were actually co-workers for a while. They met in 1985 when they were both working at the cubbyhole. Lisa was just a college student tending bar to make some money.

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I worked Monday night, which is historically the slowest night in the bar business, and my shift was nine to four. And right around 1:00 in the morning, there would be empty till 4:00. That's three hours. I would study by my psychology stuff for St. Johns and I'll take little breaks and then. So, I mean, I would just chitchat and we just bonded. I mean, it was really quite instant. We just liked each other right away.

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Working those long nights together, Lisa and Stormy forged a fast friendship.

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Despite their 44 year age gap for years, the cubbyhole was Storm's top gig. And when it closed in 1990, Lisa decided to buy the bar herself. She opened it one year later as Henrietta Hudson. And when it came time to staff up, she knew just who to call Stormy work for me.

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Immediately, I assembled an incredible staff like the The Crimes Ella from the downtown gay scene.

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Stormy worked the door at Henry Hudson into her late 70s. It was her steadiest paycheck. But even after she formally retired, Lisa kept paying her. Asked her why.

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I knew she needed the money and she deserved it. And she's my friend and I do a lot of fund raising and stuff like that. There's nothing wrong with this. Instead of fundraising for an organization, just directly give somebody money who's amazing, who does a lot for the community.

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The fact that Lisa kept paying Stormi even after she stopped working there, it touched me. There is such a simple gesture, but something so big at the same time, you know, story would come in on a Sunday night. She sit at the bar, get a Bacharach's and you know, she get an envelope. It was kind of like she was collecting a pension.

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Stormy kept coming into Henrietta Hudson until about 2010. Then she stopped coming. She was getting older, intended to stay closer to home. She and Lisa fell out of touch. And then Lisa got some news. Stormy had fallen and broken a bone, and because she had no listed blood relatives, she was taken under the care of the state and she was suffering from dementia. To start his neighbors. A woman named Michelle Zahl Aponte reached out to Lisa and a bunch of other people in the bar scene that Stormi knew.

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She set up a meeting to try to figure out how they could help her. There are about twelve, maybe 14 people. And we got together and we talked about the situation. I didn't see anything solution based. I didn't really see it that anybody was looking for a solution. They were just kind of in the problem. But we were slated to meet the next week and come back with some, you know, some something. Two people showed up.

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It was me and Michel who I didn't know. I never knew her. But it was a fucking heartache that nobody came to a second meeting.

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No one else was stepping up. So Lisa and Michelle stepped in. They met with a lawyer, a state congressman and a judge and won the right to be stormy legal guardians and their first order of business. They put Stormy up in the Cadillac of nursing homes so she could finish out her days in comfort.

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It was a bew. It was a utopian idea of this assisted living facility for people who didn't have a lot of money that showed them respect. And that was pretty. And that was clean and had good food and activities. And everybody was so loving. They knew stories, backstory. They were intrigued.

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After all those years of fighting, she was safe. She was comfortable. And she was being taken care of. The same way she had taken care of others. Her whole life.

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Stormy is somebody for whom life was really hard from the day she was born. She was labeled illegitimate.

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And it's a label that could have followed her throughout her entire life. It could have made her bitter. But neither one of those things happened. It was touching and it was beautiful.

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How at the end of stormy life, you know, the people that she protected for so long came back to protect her. She had given out so much love over the course of her life.

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It really it really came back as a comfort to her in the end.

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That is that's the lesson to me, that of her life. That's the lesson that her life teaches. You could pull out a gun on some people. You could pack a pistol. You could, but you could also be a loving person.

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And Stormy was just too so brave like she.

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She didn't feel the need to fulfill anybody's ideas about, you know, what she should look like or how she should dress or who she should be. You know, she fought a lot of battles and she put up with a lot of shit. And, you know, unless you really dig, you're not really going to find this woman story. The nursing home where she was living was maybe a 10 minute walk from my apartment and I didn't know her.

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She'd died before I even learned who she was. You know, this is somebody who should have had ticker tape parades. There should be streets named after her. But if I hadn't have happened to see her face, her glamorous face in the corner of my computer screen, I would never even have gone down this path. Stormy Bellavia died on May 24th, 2014, at the ripe old age of 93. The knot is produced by me, Brittany Loose with Eric Eddings, Kay Parkinson, Morgan and James T.

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Green. Our senior producer is Sara Abdurrahman. We were edited this week by Annie Rose, Stresser, Alex Blumberg and her headrest additional editing help from Sara guys and Jordan Barnes, fact checking by Nicole Pacifica Engineering from Sedrick Wilson and Matthew Bull. Our theme music is by Khaleed Be Additional Music in the show by Bobby Lord, Haley Shaw, The Five Do Tones and the Maury Morrison Orchestra. Special thanks to Michele Parkerson and Women Make Movies for granting us permission to use excerpts from her film Stormi The Lady of the Jewel Box.

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Also to Kirk Klok for granting us permission to use a 2009 interview of Stormi. And finally to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.