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The Harlem Renaissance for Gays and Lesbians

An Open Era for Gays and Lesbians


Harlem's Famous Cotton Club

Harlem's Famous Cotton Club

© Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The Harlem Renaissance, the time between the 1920s and 1930s in New York's Harlem neighborhood, is known as an era of great growth for African American art, literature and culture. Great writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes came of age in this time.

The era was also known as the Jazz Age and gave way to the careers of Blues legends Bessie Smith, Gladys Bently and Ma Rainey, to name a few.

Gays, Lesbians and The Harlem Renaissance

The culture of the Harlem Renaissance was one that was open to sexual exploration and gays and lesbians, both Black and White, found a community there. The jazz and blues clubs of Harlem felt like a welcoming place to gays and lesbians of different races. Author Arwyn Moore claims that many white gays and lesbians who frequented Harlem nightlife became a part of the Black culture: listening to the music, reading the literature and most importantly, relating to common prejudice and bigotry both experienced from the greater mainstream culture.

Rent Parties

In addition to the clubs of Harlem, private rent parties became a place where gays and lesbians could dance and socialize without fear of being arrested. Rent parties were private parties that people threw in their apartments to raise rent. Rent parties became places for gays and lesbians to mingle in relative safety.

Out Blues Musicians

The Blues music that was popular at the time was also an attraction for gays and lesbians. Many of the lyrics spoke of gender-bending men and women, blurring of sexual boundaries and same-sex attraction. One of the most famous Blues singers of that time was Gladys Bentley who was notorious for wearing men's clothing on stage and for her marriage to another woman.

Ma Rainey was another Black lesbian singer, her famous song begged listeners to "Prove it on Me." Ma Rainey was said to have had a relationship with bisexual singer Bessie Smith.

Sources: Out in All Directions

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