Queer Quickie: Chavela Vargas

Chavela (born Isabela Vargas Lizano) was a famed Costa Rican singer, she was a HUGE influence on Latin American music from the 1950s onwards.

She was known for her soulful & INTENSE gravelly voice, her ability to hold her drink, her reputation with women and her incredible artistic output.

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Seriously… HOW HAWT IS SHE?!?!?! 😍

She was born in Costa Rica in 1919 and never really knew her parents, being raised by relatives in the countryside. Chavela wanted more, she bided her time until she could move to a big city. So as soon as she hit her teens she packed up all her shiz and moved to Mexico!

The Ranchera Queen

Now Chavela knew she was a talented singer so she started off busking and singing in the streets before going professional when she hit 30.

She was known in Mexico for singing ranchera style, which was typically male dominated and focused on songs about love and loss. So she dressed as a man, carried a pistol and sang traditional songs WITHOUT CHANGING THE LYRICS – SO SHE WAS SINGING LOVE SONGS TO AND ABOUT WOMEN!

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Get it grrrl! 🙌🏽

She was a darling of the arts scene in Mexico and was obviously a HUGE hit with the ladies. Vargas slept with a lot of women, openly having a string of affairs. In fact, it was rumoured she bedded Hollywood starlet Ava Gardener after singing at Liz Taylor’s wedding!!!

In 1961 Chavela recorded her first album, Noche de Bohemia (Bohemian Night) and just kept on rolling. She recorded over 80 albums (that’s right 80!) in her lifetime! Always keeping it traditional and staying true to her ranchera roots with a mariachi band sound.

In the 70’s Chavela retired from music after a decades long battle with battling alcoholism. She was taken in by a Native American family (who btw had no idea who she was, they were just super nice) and they nursed her back to health.

Don’t Call It a Comeback

Chavela’s music had a resurgence in the 1990’s thanks to famed filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who was a massive fan and put her and her music in load of his films.

Most notably she appeared in his 2002 film Frida, based on the life of artist Frida Kahlo, who incidentally Chavela had an affair with (we told you she had a lot of lovers!) 

Chavela described Pedro as her artistic soulmate and she credited him with making her more accepted in Mexico, where she had struggled with opposition to her homosexuality.

Though it was considered common knowledge Chavela liked the ladies, she only officially came out at the grand old age of 81!!! Her fans all reacted with a ‘Yeah, we know, and we love you!’

This revelation came out of her autobiography And If You Want to Know about My Past.

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The LEGEND who lives on through her music. 

She left a helluva legacy when she passed away at 93, her last words were said to be

‘I leave with Mexico in my heart’

She showed it doesn’t matter when you come out, you can still live as your authentic self and embrace queerness at ANY age.

That was interesting, where can I find out more: Listen to her albums! Seriously, her voice is GORGEOUS. And read her autobiography, it’s fascinating and JUICY. There’s also a wonderful documentary on her by Catherine Grund & Daresha Kyi simply entitled Chavela.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

Queer Quickie: Stormé DeLarverie

Happy Pride month to all our LGBTQIA+ readers! Last year we celebrated Marsha P Johnson and this year we want to celebrate Pride even more, so all this month we’ll be bringing  you some of the most incredible players in the fight for LGBQTIA+ rights!

Lets kick things off with the story of stone cold butch babe Stormé DeLarverie.

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Stormè working security outside The Cubby Hole

Stormé was known in LGBT circles as the ‘Lesbian Rosa Parks’ she fought against ‘ugly’ (her term for bigotry and hatred) for her entire life and always looked out for others.

There’s a Stormé coming

She was born in New Orleans in 1920 to her mother, an African American servant and her father, who was head of the white family her mother worked for. Her parents eventually married and moved to California.

In her teens Stormé realised 2 major things:

A) that she was a lesbian

B) she had a talent for singing and keeping a captive audience.

During the 1940s Stormé toured with a jazz trio as the singer. Stormé started performing in drag around this time and made quite a name for herself as an accomplished Drag King in queer cabaret circles.

She also performed as part of the Jewel Box Review, a drag cabaret, which featured predominantly drag queens and one drag king; our gal Stormé.

Stormé spent the rest of the 1950s and 60s crooning jazz numbers to enthusiastic queer crowds

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In full King mode – Doesn’t she look dreamy?

Stormé and Stonewall

Things started to get real rough for Stormé. You see, in the late 60’s there was a relentless campaign against Queer hot spots in New York City by the police and tensions were at an all time high.

On June 29th 1969 Stormé was hanging out near the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, having recently come back from touring with the Jewel Box. She was having a wonderful time, drinking and socialising with her mates.

Suddenly police descended on the Stonewall Inn. They forced their way into the bar at around 1.20am and started forcefully dragging patrons outside. The police molested lesbians, beat up young men who resisted arrest and refused to show identification (cross dressing was ILLEGAL then)

Stormé saw one of her friends being assaulted by police. She was not having it. She fought back and threw a punch at one of the policemen, after he assaulted her.

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No comment needed

Stormé was then handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police van, but she kept escaping amidst the chaos. She complained her handcuffs were too tight and she was beaten about the head with a baton.

Bleeding and being dragged back to the police van again Stormé addressed the growing crowd directly.

‘WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING?’

The crowds outside started to fight back against the police AND SHIT KICKED OFF!

Speaking later about the Stonewall Uprising she said

“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience–it wasn’t no damn riot.”

Don’t forget she was nearly 50 when she fought back against the police. She was known for being lovely, but tough as fucking nails.

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Truly Stormé is the baddest of all bad bitches.

Stormé: The Later Years

After Stonewall Stormé was an important member of the SVA, The Stonewall Veterans Association, she was a key figure in NY Pride often appearing with her car, which was well known for being parked outside the gay bars in Greenwich Village and was actually outside Stonewall Inn the night of the riots!

She settled in Brooklyn, New York in her later years, giving up touring and promptly appointed herself protector of lesbians within Greenwich village in NYC. 

Stormé would patrol round the local LGBT hot spots checking everyone was ok. She did this well into her 80s.

She was a much loved and familiar face as a bouncer to local gay clubs. She greeted everyone with ‘Hey babies’, or ‘Hey love’ and always encouraged everyone to get home safe.

Stormé was full of love for her community.

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She is the best

Stormé passed away in 2014 at the grand old age of 93, and was an inspiration to so many people, myself very much included, showing us that displaying kindness didn’t mean you couldn’t be tough and fight for what you believed in.

That was interesting where can I find out more? Well there’s a short documentary on Stormé called Stormé: Lady of the Jewel Box and you can find it here on YouTube! It’s about her time working on the Jewel Box Revue and shows her working as a bouncer in the 80’s.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Baddest Queer Bitches in History

It’s Pride Season and we’ve already started planning our outfit for London & Brighton Pride (hint… RAINBOW-LEOPARD PRINT-GLITTER) SO lets celebrate everything LGBTQ+! To kick things off here are some of our favourite queer ladies.

Sappho

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Sappho with Erena – Simeon Solomon

You cannot start a list about history’s greatest queers without mentioning Sappho. She was a Greek poet who lived on the Island of Lesbos (sign me up) around 615 B.C. Sappho wrote about her love for many a woman and was one of the highest regarded poets of her lifetime.

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Sorry,…Mrs Fancy Pants         Via Giphy

Plato called her ‘The Tenth Muse’ which was a massive compliment at the time. The other nine muses were the Greek Goddesses of Art & Science; so he thought Sappho was a pretty big deal.

There’s an argument between historian’s as to if Sappho did have relationships with women or if her poetry was just about her dearest ‘gal pals’. Only fragments of her poems survive and since she lived a really fecking long time ago we can’t ask her.

Personally I think her poems evoke a deep sense of love and sexual longing for her female subjects that goes way beyond the ‘female admiration’ lots of male historians like to think Sappho had for platonic pals.

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Presented without comment… Via Giphy

See what you think for yourself. Here’s an extract from Sappho 94 translated by Julia Dubnoff:

“For by my side you put on

many wreaths of roses

and garlands of flowers

around your soft neck.

And with precious and royal perfume

you anointed yourself.

On soft beds you satisfied your passion.”

……HELLA GAY!

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So so so gay.

Later history mocked and destroyed her work. It was denounced by the church and was ridiculed by poets and playwrights who wrote her off as a sexual deviant or a tragic character. But finally our girl is getting her rep back!

Sappho is the mother of lesbians and her influence cannot be argued with.

Mabel Hampton

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Mabel was a staunch activist and LGBT+ historian, she was instrumental in recording and preserving queer history, especially the experience of living as a gay, black woman in America during periods of huge upheaval.

Hell… Mabel IS the reason we know so much now. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York are full to the brim thanks to Mabel. She was a bit of a hoarder.

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Yikes! Via Giphy

She had a pretty tragic upbringing, her Mum died not long after giving birth to her and her Grandmother followed a few years later. She was raised by an abusive Aunt & Uncle before deciding ‘Fuck this, I’ve had enough’

She moved to Harlem and worked as a dancer during the Harlem Renaissance (see our blog post on this INCREDIBLE movement.) And she was a regular at Harlem drag balls; an early celebration of queer black identities during the roaring 20’s.

She left showbiz and started work as a cleaning lady. When asked why she left behind the glitz and glamour she famously answered

‘Because I like to eat.’

I have never related to a statement this hard.

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Fo realzies. Via Giphy

Mabel publicly declared herself as a lesbian during a time when being black alone made you heavily persecuted, but gay too?! THE LADY WAS BRAVE!

She met her partner Lillian Foster at a bus stop in 1932 describing her as: dressed like a duchess’. They were together until Foster’s death in 1978. Serious relationship goals.

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Mabel and Lillian spent their lives documenting their experiences as a lesbian couple. They helped set up the Lesbian Herstory Archives and Mabel & Lillian donated hundreds of newspaper clippings, gay books, photographs and other paraphernalia to the archives.

Mabel gave a speech at the New York Pride Parade in 1984 stating to the crowds

‘I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people.’

She was incredible. We were lucky to have her.

Anne Lister

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Possibly our fave on this list, Anne (born in 1791) was seriously rich…like MTV Cribs level minted. Her family owned a bunch of land in Halifax, West Yorkshire and they were desperate to marry her off to some rich oik to keep that money rolling in. ANNE WAS HAVING NONE OF IT!

She inherited fancy country house Shibden Hall from her uncle, immediately built herself a posh new library and decided to live openly with another super rich babe Ann Walker. She’s lucky Ann came along when she did because the money was running out at that point.

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Via Giphy

She was known locally as ‘Gentleman Jack’ for the way she dressed in male clothing. She tended to wear sensible black jakets, with no frilly business. Our girl was a Georgian butch. She kept coded diaries which tell us pretty plainly that Anne was very definitely a lesbian.

‘I love & only love the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.’

Her diaries were coded, she thought we’d never crack it, but thank feck we did because these diaries are SO JUICY! Anne had mad game and went through a lot of high societies ladies.

Here are some of our fave snippets

‘But I mean to amend at five & thirty & retire with credit. I shall have a good fling before then. Four years. And in the meantime I shall make my avenae communes, my wild oats common. I shall domiciliate then.’

So she wanted life to be like a big gay 18-30 holiday. Can’t argue with that.

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Same. Via Giphy

‘I begin to despair that M- & I will ever get together. Besides I sometimes fancy she will be worn out in the don’s service & perhaps I may do better.’

M was Mariana Lawton, who was the love of Anne’s life. She married a rich old dude, which devastated Anne as she wanted to live with M as her partner. Their affair carried on for a while after the marriage, but it fizzled out a few years later.

Much of the info we have on Anne’s diaries is from Helena Whitbread, another incredible woman working to preserve lesbian history. THANK YOU HELENA!

Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich!!

Marlene is one of my favourite old Hollywood starlets. This German had a mind like a razor and cheekbones to match, plus she looked fucking amazing in a suit.

She made androgynous dress sexy and alluring. Up till this time most women dressing as drag kings was done very much for laughs or in the sanctity of queer spaces underground. Marlene brought it to the mainstream.

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YASSSSSSSS BISSSSSSSSH!         Via Giphy

Dietrich was a German silent film actor in the 20’s before moving into talkies and raking it in with her ‘exotic’ looks and fabulous accent. During this time period the gay scene in Berlin was happening, hip, where it’s at etc.

Marlene bloody loved a drag ball, as she was openly bisexual, and could frolic with all the young ladies she could get her hands on. At these parties she learnt how to rock the fuck out of a three piece suit.

In the late 20’s/early 30’s she got her big break in Hollywood films where she usually played a sexy cabaret singer of some kind. In one of her most famous films, Morocco, (where she plays a sexy cabaret singer) Marlene dresses in a fancy very masculine top hat and tails suit (PHWOR!) during one of her numbers and at the end sneaks in a kiss with a young lady! SCANDAL!

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She kissed a girl AND she liked it. Via Giphy

She just about got away with it because American’s assume us Europeans are a passionate and sexually charged lot.

This theme of taking on masculine traits was something she embraced with gusto, training as a boxer in a sweaty gym in Berlin owned by a Turkish prizefighter. She enjoyed boxing and followed the sport throughout her life.

Marlene was known to have a network of Hollywood starlets she had affairs with, she referenced this overlapping group as Marlene’s Sewing Circle. I’m going to sew this onto my biker jacket right now.

Later in life she said some stupid shit (women’s lib was ‘penis envy’…) so she’s a pretty problematic favourite. But she was a real pioneer. Drag Kings and androgens owe her a debt of thanks.

Billie Holiday

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The Lady of the Blues is one of the most recognisable voices in the world. Billie had a tragic and abusive upbringing after which she then spent most of her adult life battling a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Billie had relationships with many women but her most well known was with actress Tallulah Bankhead. It was a volatile relationship which was always on again, then off again, THEN ON. We’ve all been there.

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PREACH! Via Giphy

While Tallulah was starring in Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway Billie had a contract singing in New York’s Strand Theatre. Tallulah would sneak in and watch Billie performing after her show finished. That’s sweet innit?

However the breakup went bad. Billie was arrested for opium possession and Bankhurst bailed her out, then got her into therapy. They parted ways soon afterwards, but things did not stay civil.

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Stay down bitch! Via Giphy

Billie was working on her memoirs, which included mentioning her friendship with Bankhead, but Talullah maintained she’d never even met Holiday (despite lots of evidence to the contrary) and she sent a letter to Billie’s publishers threatening to sue unless she was taken out of it.

Billie sent back an amazingly shitty letter to Bankhead reminding her that she had people around who could back up her story and she wrote-

‘And if you want to get shitty, we can make it a big shitty party. We can all get funky together!’

Mic drop. Holiday out.

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BOOOOOOOOM! Via Giphy

So that’s some of our fave historical queer ladies.

We’ll be doing more posts on LGBTQ+ history during Pride season, we’ve got Marsha P Johnson & the Stonewall riots up next week!

Who do you want us to write about?!

Answers on a post card…or in the comments.

Alternatively gives us a shout on the F Yeah History Twitter and Facebook 


Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

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