Gladys Bentley (1907-1960):
Gladys Bentley was a popular Blues singer during The Harlem Renaissance. She left her home in Philadelphia at age 16 to live in New York City's Harlem. In the 1920s Harlem was an open and accepting place for gays and lesbians.
Gladys Bentley: Blues Singer:
Bentley began singing at "rent parties" in the 1920s. She was famous for taking the lyrics of popular songs and rewriting them with raunchy lyrics. Bentley eventually began working at the famous speakeasies of the era. She attracted gay, straight, black and white audiences
Gladys Bentley: Butch Lesbian:
Bentley dressed in her trademark tuxedo and top hat. She flaunted her sexual orientation and reputation as a 'bulldagger' or butch lesbian. She openly flirted with women in the audience.
Gladys Bentley: Part of the Harlem Renaissance:
The 1920s in Harlem was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Artists and intellectuals, writers and musicians, most of them Black, lived in Harlem, New York City. Many of the greatest names of this era were gay or bisexual including Bentley, Langston Hughs, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters.
Gladys Bentley's Marriage to a White Woman:
Bentley was often the subject of gossip columnists. They were intrigued by this big Black woman who flaunted her sexuality. Her 'marriage' to a white woman from New Jersey was widely publicized.
Gladys Bentley's Musical Career:
Beginning in 1928 Bentley began a recording career that spanned more than twenty years. Her recordings were void of her bawdy lyrics and references to lesbianism. In the 1930s she headlined at Harlem's Ubangi Club with a chorus of drag queens.
Gladys Moves Out West:
The crash of the stock market and the Great Depression had it's impact on Harlem. With club dates waning, Bentley moved to Los Angeles in 1937 to live with her mother. There she was harassed by police for wearing men's clothing. She gained a small following in the clubs, catering to a gay clientele.
Gladys Bentley Recants her Lesbianism:
In the 1950s McCarthyism swept the United States. It was no longer safe to be an "out and proud" butch lesbian bulldagger. Bentley tried to clean up her act to save her career. In 1952 she published an article in Ebony magazine claiming, "I am a woman again." She claimed she cured her lesbianism by taking female hormones and was married to a man.
Did she really Recant?:
Gay Historian Eric Garber found many inaccuracies in Gladys Bentley's account of "going straight." The man she claimed to have married denied it and the medical treatment she claims she sought did not make sense. Nevertheless, living as a lesbian must have been hard for a Black woman at that time. Near the end of her life Bentley became a devout member of The Temple of Love in Christ. She died of influenza in 1960.