Remembering the glitzy glory of Donna Mae Stemmer


You can see it in each faded Polaroid and snazzy outfit of hers on display at Philly AIDS Thrift on South Fifth Street and Philly AIDS Thrift Giovanni's Room at 12th and Pine. In all of them, no matter the year, there's a mischievous glint in her eye and a smile playing on her lips.

"She might have come out a bit less toward the end of her life, but she was still decked out," says friend Michael Byrne.

The 82-year-old transgender trailblazer, who died in June at her Pennsauken home, was a University of Pennsylvania grad with a law degree from Temple who worked as a lawyer and served in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years, fighting in Korea, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, and being decorated 25 times, including a Distinguished Service Award in 2008.

Donna Mae - born Donald - also happened to look great in a sparkly dress, wig, and full makeup. She was a member of the Key West Wolves softball team and an active LGBT league cheerleader, and she attended every gay and transgender event in the city decked out in full female splendor.

"By the way, my Army pension helps pay for my cheerleader outfits," Stemmer wrote in a Sept. 24, 2003, Inquirer letter to the editor. She was responding to another letter writer who had called her a "deviant buffoon in the cheerleader's costume."

Stemmer went everywhere as a woman, from Henri David's Halloween Ball to Gay Bingo.

"I think the only person who showed up more than me was Donna Mae," says Byrne, who as drag queen MC Carlotta Tendant has long hosted monthly fund-raising bingo for the Philadelphia AIDS Fund at Broad Street's Gershman Y. "And she was always dressed to the teeth in whatever theme we ran that month."

Byrne should know: He borrowed more than a few of those legendary dresses and pantsuits, all of which were captured by Stemmer via Polaroid in her home.

Donna Mae Stemmer - a lawyer, Army officer, and decorated veteran of Korea - over the decades photographed herself in hundreds of outfits. The Polaroids are on display at Philly AIDS Thrift and Philly AIDS Thrift@Giovanni´s Room.
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"Leave no outfit undocumented - that had to be her reasoning for shooting every dress, bangle, and bead that she wore," says Philly AIDS Thrift co-founder Tom Brennan.

Brennan estimates he and his volunteer crew rescued thousands of photos from Stemmer's home after her death. Now they're on display in an exhibition at the two Thrifts, along with some of her dazzling outfits.

"It's never coming down," he says. "We'll keep switching the shots in and out."

Whether in collage form or single stills, Stemmer is captured throughout the years in one of several spots in her home: the bar area, sitting before her vanity, in an archway, beside a TV with a Senorita doll atop the console.

"Whatever the decade might be - the '60s, the '70s, whatever - you know what year it is from seeing those most archetypal splashy outfits," notes Brennan. "Like epaulettes in the '80s. It's astounding."

Boston-bred Brennan had known Stemmer since coming to Philly in 1982 and saw the transgender activist everywhere. "Donna Mae was legendary just by walking into a room," he says. "No matter where you went, the question was, 'What would Donna Mae wear?' "

When Stemmer died, mutual friends warned Brennan that her collection of dresses, photos, vintage underground cross-dressing magazines, and dolls might wind up in the trash. Her family lived in Florida and wanted to empty the house quickly.

"When we got there, though, Donna Mae's brother was very nice and said we could take our time picking up everything," Brennan says.

While thousands of pieces have been put on display at the two Thrifts, it was the photos of Stemmer in everything from beaded dresses to sensible lady sweaters that blew Brennan and company away, an amazing sociological road map of clothing history as well as transgender activism.

"Young kids can learn from Stemmer's life," says Byrne, recently named president of the board at Philly AIDS Thrift. "They'll probably never go through the troubles that Donna Mae saw, the struggles of discrimination."

Before her death, she sought to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with a headstone that reflected her female name but was denied because the LGBT references violated headstone guidelines there. Instead, she was interred at Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown, N.J.

"What makes me sad," says Byrne, "is that our community did not honor her before she passed. She should have got the key to the city."

What makes Byrne happy is the memory of rifling through Stemmer's closets, a "jaw-dropping collection of dresses, bracelets, earrings, and more, all of which she would generously lend you."

Along with recalling a Gay Bingo Barbie-theme night when Stemmer wore the doll's most iconic outfit - a long strapless black tube dress that had crinoline at the hem and a big red rose - the drag MC paid tribute last month during the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy-theme Gay Bingo.

"I wore this red-white-and-blue sequined number of Donna Mae's with matching panties," he recalls with a loud laugh. "Donna Mae Stemmer would have had stars-and-stripes bloomers with silver glitter stars."

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