- October 13, 2014
Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager
Growing up, African-American blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley knew she was “different” from other girls. Her preference for masculine clothing and her crush on a female schoolteacher led to ridicule from other kids, and concerned her parents, who took her to multiple doctors. At 16, she moved to Harlem, the New York City neighborhood whose wartime influx of African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans had led to the flowering of Black art, literature, and music during the 1920s called the Harlem Renaissance.
Harlem during the roaring twenties was a time where racial, cultural and sexual boundaries seemed permeable in a way that they hadn’t been before. LGBTQ African Americans created one of the most vibrant queer communities of color in the twentieth century (the word queer is used since at the time terms such as “gay” and “lesbian,” and were not used or established). One of Harlem’s biggest attractions was the annual drag ball that attracted both queer and straight interracial audiences. Queer middle-class writers like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Richard Bruce Nugent gained national prominence, and working-class speakeasies and blues clubs featured queer female singers like Bentley, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Bentley reveled in the underground culture of blues clubs, where she often performed in drag under the name Bobby Minton. According to historian Eric Garber, Bentley was one of the best-known lesbians in Harlem, and was both open and “genuinely happy about her homosexuality.” In the early 1930s, Bentley even held a public wedding in which she married a white woman.
While Bentley’s Harlem in the 1920s and 30s seems to have been tolerant and in some ways affirming of her sexual orientation and gender nonconformity, subsequent decades saw the rise of more conservative attitudes regarding sex and gender. By the 1950s, Bentley had essentially been forced to hide her sexual orientation by postwar shift toward cultural and political conformity.
In a January 1953 article in Jet magazine, Bentley declared that she had changed “from ‘third’ sex to true female.” Looking back on her previous life, she said, “I violated the accepted code of morals that our world observes…I was a big successful star—and a sad, lonely person—until the miracle finally happened and I became a woman again.” Caving to the immense social pressure for gender and sexual conformity that characterized the early Cold War, Bentley said she had married a man in “a whirlwind love affair,” a marriage that the man she supposedly wed claimed never happened.
Bentley’s story offers some important insights into LGBT U.S. History. Her popularity and the relative freedom she enjoyed in Harlem during the 1920s and 30s offers a glimpse into a period where LGBT African Americans forged communities and created safe spaces in which they could explore and express desires and identities that most Americans considered taboo. As historian Lillian Faderman explained, Harlem in the 1920s and 30s was tolerant enough of queer people that it, “permitted black lesbians to socialize openly in their own communities instead of seeking out alien turf as white lesbians [and gay men] generally felt compelled to do.”
Bentley’s story also reveals the power of cultural homophobia during the early Cold War in the 1950s, a context in which the vast majority of LGBT Americans were considered a threat to American society. Bentley’s struggles remind us that the path toward equality and social justice for LGBT people is not necessarily something that we can count on to progress forward without our concerted efforts to support each other and fight for the rights of our LGBT communities, spaces, and families.
Telling the stories of queer African Americans and other people of color in the LGBT movement is an important way to honor LGBT history month. Remembering their lives helps deepen and broaden our collective community, reminding us who we are and where we have been.