Jacquelynn Kane said Donna Mae Stemmer taught her how to eat chicken fingers with white gloves on.
“She was a good friend—she was a close good friend throughout all these years,” said Kane, a long-time friend of Stemmer. “As years went on we stuck together, and people went their own ways. We all get older and some people die or get sick, one time we may have all been part of a group—in the end it was me and Donna Mae.”
Stemmer was a Philadelphia transgender fashion icon who passed away in June. The Temple law alumnus and Korean War veteran was known for her activism and outfits in the city’s trans community.
After her passing, one of Stemmer’s friends called Philly AIDS Thrift, on 5th Street near Bainbridge in Queen Village. The friend suggested the organization collect the alumnus’ clothes, afraid the collection might be lost.
“We don’t do a lot of pickups,” said Tom Brennan, store manager of Philly AIDS. “But we knew we had to make this happen. It would have been tragic for her stuff to disappear.”
Stemmer and the rest of the community regarded Philly AIDS Thrift as a safe space, making it a logical resting place for her clothing collection. Stemmer also documented her outfits by photographing herself. Brennan found boxes of Polaroids when he went to her house.
Now, her extensive closet, including her old cheerleading uniform and a wide selection of jewelry, will be for sale at Philly AIDS Thrift. All of the proceeds will be donated to multiple AIDS organizations.
“It’s kind of amazing—she’s still giving back to the community,” said Michael Byrne, president of the Philly AIDS Thrift board.
Stemmer had hundreds of articles of clothing and jewelry. She would take ordinary days and make them into extravagant occasions with the way she dressed, and her style was a way for Stemmer to support LGBTQ rights and inspire people to embrace who they were, Brennan said.
“‘I’m just going to dress and be who I want to be,’—That was Donna to a T,” Brennan said.
Byrne met Stemmer through hosting GayBINGO!, and recalls seeing Stemmer at almost every event—always in the audience and always in costume.
Byrne, who performs drag as Carlota Ttendant, often reached out to Stemmer to borrow outfits.
“I thought I had a lot of clothes, but I have nothing compared to Donna,” he said. “She walked up to this huge cabinet, and asked, ‘Do you need earrings?’ and then opened another huge cabinet, just for bracelets.”
“A lot of the times she was in better costume than all of the drag queens,” Byrne added. “I will never forget Barbie Bingo. I had tried harder than anything to get the original Barbie dress—black strapless gown with a little red rose. I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I had someone make it for me. Of course, Donna Mae had it on the same night. I said, ‘Oh, Donna Mae, you’re killing me!’”
Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou met Stemmer at Black Tie GayBINGO!, where they would sit together, and Stemmer would pass around little photo albums of her outfits.
The clothing, Kallas-Saritsoglou said, reflected her strong and bright presence.
“Shining, sparkling, it all went hand in hand with her personality,” Kallas-Saritsoglou said. “She made people feel good and happy.”
“This was someone that just didn’t give a f–k,” Brennan added. “Her influence was just being herself.”
Stemmer was also a cheerleader for the Philadelphia Wolves softball team after Kane introduced her to the team.
“She always wore cheerleader outfits, with pom poms,” Kane said. “She would sew on the names of teams with sparkles and embellished letters.”
Stemmer was more than just a cheerleader for the Wolves. She stood behind those transitioning, Kane said. Sometimes all someone needed was to talk to someone with a “heart of gold,” she added—someone like Stemmer.
“Donna Mae will be Philly AIDS Thrift, even when her clothes are gone,” Byrne said.
Tsipora Hacker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.