Who she was: A popular and very out lesbian blues artist of the 1920s and ’30s.
What she accomplished: While the Harlem Renaissance era of the ’20s and ’30s saw a bounty of lesbian and bisexual blues singers — Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters — no one was more open about her love for women than Gladys Bentley. Bentley wore tuxedos and top hats, flirted with women in her audiences, improvised risqué lyrics when performing, and proudly wore the label of “bulldagger.” Bentley was born in Philadelphia in 1907, and while growing up she was subjected to the treatment familiar to so many LGBT young people: Other kids ostracized her for her gender-variant appearance, and her parents took her to doctors to try to “cure” her of her crush on a female teacher. At age 16, she moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where African-Americans were making music, art, and literature in an explosion of creativity that would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. The environment was accepting of all types of sexuality and gender expression, and Bentley soon became an in-demand singer and pianist at Harlem nightspots including the Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn, and the Clam House as well as midtown jazz clubs. Known as “the Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs,” she was a powerful performer: “When Gladys sings ‘St. James Infirmary,’ it makes you weep your heart out,” one fan wrote of her. The great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes called her “an amazing exhibition of musical energy,” and fiction writer of the era based characters on her. At one point she had a marriage ceremony — obviously without legal standing — with a female lover.
In the late 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance waned, and Bentley moved to California, where she sang at gay clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. By the 1940s she was finding less social acceptance; the L.A. police required clubs to get permits to allow her to appear in men’s clothing. Eventually she also ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee, for her lesbianism and interracial affairs rather than any political associations. In the 1950s, in an article in Ebony magazine, she claimed to have been converted to heterosexuality through female hormone supplements. This “is written off as a fabrication to save her career during the McCarthy era,” wrote Ms. blogger Shantala Thompson. Bentley then had at least one marriage to a man — she claimed two, but one of the supposed husbands denied the marriage took place — and became a devout Christian. She studied for the ministry, but she died (in 1960) before she could be ordained. A 1957 article in the Chicago Defender, however, indicated that she had not renounced same-sex love. An interviewer asked her about photos of a man and a woman on her dresser, and she replied, “That’s my husband [pointing to the male] and that’s my wife.”
Choice quote: “From the time I can remember anything, I never wanted a man to touch me. ... Soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys’ clothes than in dresses.” — Bentley in Ebony
For more information: The reference book Harlem Renaissance Lives has a thorough entry on Bentley, and there’s a lengthy, excellent article in the journal Ninepatch. Bentley is featured in filmmaker Robert Philipson’s documentary T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s, which has been a hit at film festivals over the past few years and will screen in February at the British Museum. And you can get a sample of her singing below.