While gender-bent performing was not widely accepted during the 1920s, that did not stop Gladys Bentley from getting on stage. Known as one of Harlem’s most famous lesbians in the 1930s, Bentley proudly sang bawdy blues in a top hat and a tuxedo as her thunderous voice rang out through the crowds. Bentley broke barriers as a Black gay woman living in the early 20th century.
Growing up queer
Bentley’s gender-bending was not just a performance, but something that she had done her whole life. From a young age, she rejected femininity and donned her younger brother’s clothes. When describing her childhood, she claims she did it at first because her mother was disappointed she was a girl. However, she began to become more comfortable in boys’ clothes than her own dresses. This became a point of contention between her and her mother, which Bentley lost. Eventually, she was forced to wear blouses and skirts.
Gladys Bentley’s struggling relationship with her mother is seen throughout her childhood. In one instance, her mother took her to doctors in order to stop her from liking women. But Bentley understood her parent’s difficulty with the situation when she wrote “They just didn’t know how to cope with a situation which to them was at once startling and disgraceful.”
It is argued that Bentley moved to Harlem because she would have been accepted by the community as a queer woman. Other LGBTQ+ creatives before her were making a name for themselves, like Ethel Waters.
Her start in New York
She first got her start in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, when she was just 16 years old. She arrived in the early 1920s when Black culture was flowing through art, music, dance, literature, and politics. Their voices were expressed in every way possible, giving rise to those like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and even Louis Armstrong.
Gladys Bentley got her start singing at rent parties. These rent parties allowed for people to raise money for their rent by charging their guests. Each individual was charged very little to partake in the food, alcohol, and live performances.
It was not long before she upgraded to singing at actual nightclubs, like the Clam House. The Clam House was a well-known gay speakeasy where she flirted with the women in her audience.
She was infamous for adding suggestive lyrics to popular songs like ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘Alice Blue Gown.’ Unfortunately, none of these songs were recorded. This is most likely because they were considered too inappropriate to record due to their obvious sexual content and lesbian references.
Her fame grew and she began performing in clubs all around the country. She broke barriers as she sang in the best clubs. She became known as “America’s Greatest Sepia Player” and “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs.” It is no wonder how she achieved all this with her enchanting deep voice and her talent for scatting like a trumpet.
Denouncing her identity
In 1937, Gladys Bentley moved to LA where she struggled to perform in men’s clothing. California had anti-cross-dressing laws that banned her from performing in certain places. By the early 50s, she became more conservative in terms of her gender and sexuality.
In Bentley’s article titled “I am a Woman Again” found in Ebony magazine, she denounces her lesbian identity. She states “Today I am a woman again through the miracle which took place not only in my mind and heart–when I found a man I could love and who could love me.”
It is understandable that Bentley felt like she needed to be viewed as a straight woman in order to escape the criticism she faced. At the time of her article’s publication, the Cold War had started, and being a lesbian was considered a national security risk. However, this does not erase the fact that she was a prominent queer woman who broke barriers and opened doors for other gender-bending performers after her.