Gladys Bentley: The Tale of Harlem’s Most Famous Lesbian

The Renaissance-era entertainer fought racism and sexism in her own way

[NOTE: For the purposes of this article, I will refer to Gladys Bentley using “she/her/hers” pronouns, as her own writing suggests that would have been preferable to her.]

When I first heard about Gladys Bentley, which admittedly was not long ago, I was elated. I found articles praising her as one of the best blues performers of the Harlem Renaissance. A gifted pianist and singer with a vibrant stage presence, she garnered the praise of some of the period’s greatest names like Langston Hughes, Harold Jackman, and Elmer Simms Campbell. Known as “one of the boldest performers of her era,” she’s been revered in recent years as a trailblazing rule-breaker of the Jazz Age.

A regular fixture at hot spots like the Clam House and Ubangi Club, her typical performance attire was a tuxedo and top hat, and she occasionally went by the name Bobbie Minton. A salacious flirt, “she was known for taking popular songs and giving them lewd lyrics,” often asking female audience members to help her improvise naughty lines. I was amazed and overjoyed to think of an openly queer woman enjoying success and praise in the public spotlight in 1920s and ’30s New York. I had assumed that kind of acceptance was unheard of in those times.

Her typical performance attire was a tuxedo and top hat, and she occasionally went by the name Bobbie Minton.

Turns out, it wasn’t entirely uncommon. The social mores of the time, particularly in the blues circuit, were looser than the periods that preceded or followed, with well-known singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith also finding ways to express their queer identities:

Blues music in the 1920s was so far under the radar of mainstream America, female blues singers could get away with occasionally expressing their unconventional desires… As it turns out, the blues world was the perfect realm for people who were thought of as “sexual deviants” to inhabit, in part because people in the entertainment industry had far more leeway to flout sexual mores… In Jazz Age speakeasies, dive bars, and private parties, blue singers had the freedom to explore alternative sexuality, and, on a rare occasion, they even expressed it in song.(Source)

Yet none were quite so bold as Bentley. Many outlets recant tales of Bentley’s peak performing days — wildly successful, a widely open and well-known “bulldyker” (which was a term for lesbians back in the day), and enjoying all the lavishness that the Black Renaissance had to offer. Most articles end on high notes.

Blue singers had the freedom to explore alternative sexuality, and on a rare occasion, they even expressed it in song.

Yet what’s notable about Gladys Bentley’s legacy goes far beyond her heyday. Unlike fellow LGBTQ pioneers Rainey and Smith, both of whom died in the 1930s, Bentley’s story had decades more chapters.

The era that saw the end of her life was 1950s America — conservative, puritanical, and gripped in the relentless witch-hunting agendas of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A time period known as the “Lavender Scare” ran parallel to anti-communist Red Scare tactics and McCarthyism. During this time, people suspected of being queer were often interrogated and removed from the workforce. It became commonplace for jobs to question employees about sexual activity, and American attitudes were at the height of their homophobia.

Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1960s, thousands of gay employees were fired or forced to resign from the federal workforce because of their sexuality… The purge followed an era in which gay people were increasingly finding each other and forming communities in urban America. (Source)

In 1952, an article written by Bentley was published in the August issue of Ebony magazine. Boldly titled “I’M A WOMAN AGAIN,” the piece is a lengthy recounting of Bentley’s childhood and upbringing, her complicated relationship to her gender, the unfolding of her career, and ultimately the “miracle” that made her “a woman again.”

In the article, Bentley is explicit in calling the lifestyle she exhibited in the ’20s and ’30s an “extreme social maladjustment” with strong implications that her identity was the result of childhood abuse and neglect. In regards to both her gender nonconformity and her lack of desire for men, she harshly criticized herself as a sinner and a deviant, mirroring much of the rhetoric toward gay people at the time: “I cannot but vehemently condemn and denounce those who defend deviation.”

She harshly criticized herself as a sinner and a deviant, mirroring much of the rhetoric toward gay people at the time.

Some historians believe Bentley’s article to have been a strategic move rather than a legitimate confessional—that it was a public attempt to create a safe image for herself during the McCarthy era and subsequently doesn’t reflect how she actually felt about her gender or her sexuality. As someone who had previously been so open about her queerness within her career, it makes sense that, as the times changed, she would have needed to protect herself from the intensely homophobic backlash of society.

Then again, it’s also possible that she truly developed such an intense self-hatred that she sought the medical intervention of a doctor and the veneer of straight partnership to achieve a “normal existence.”

She would have needed to protect herself from the intensely homophobic backlash of society.

We will never know the truth behind her motivations in publishing that piece in Ebony. She passed away only eight years later at the age of 52.

What we do know is that at the end of her life she wanted the world to believe that she had been turned “back toward the path of normalcy.” A straight woman “as any other woman in the world.” She wanted us to believe that she had been medically cured of her queerness and that the life she ultimately pursued of heterosexual marriage and traditional womanhood was the right and correct path for people like her.

And her story did reach people like her.

I will not attempt to retroactively attach today’s LGBTQ terminology to a historical figure such as Bentley, but by the admission of her own words it is clear that she was not straight, and it is highly probable that she was also not cisgender. For people like that, happiness was a hard thing to come by in the ’50s. The letters to the editor in response to her article, from people who identified with the self-loathing and isolation of her narrative, were a heartbreaking look into the inner turmoil and societal rejection of so many queer folks from that time.

For people like Gladys Bentley, happiness was a hard thing to come by in the ’50s.

They were also a reminder that many of these attitudes linger on and continue to oppress the LGBTQ community some 70 years later.

“Some of us wear the symbols and badges of our nonconformity. Others, seeking to avoid the censure of society, hide behind respectable fronts, haunted always by the fear of exposure and ostracism… All about us we hear the condemnation of our kind. We hear the scornful word labels used in referring to us. We wince at the many harsh suggestions of what should be done to rid the world of the abnormalcy to which we cling… To the great majority of us, at some time or other, has come the feeling that the world would be better off without us.”

Gladys Bentley, 1952

Despite the stardom of her glory days, Bentley ended her life in a particular circle of hell that is familiar only to queer people who have endured the soul-crushing task of masking the truth of who they are and who they love. Although her legacy as a performer stands as a highlight of the Harlem Renaissance, the full length of her life is a stark reminder of the type of tragedy that has historically robbed so many Black queer people from achieving all that they could and deserved.

Just as the intersections of Blackness and womanhood compel me to consider racism and sexism as almost always in tandem, so too do the intersections of queerphobia. The histories of Black people and queer people are not isolated from the greater story of America, and they are certainly not isolated from each other. They are interwoven, always, though some threads may be lost to time.

Although, as many threads continue to be uncovered, it is certain that the world is better off for having had the talents of the one and only Gladys Bentley:

Gladys Bentley on ‘You Bet Your Life’ (1958)

Follow along with Momentum and other Medium publications this month as we uncover the Hidden History of our present and past. By telling these stories, we make it easier to understand the system ini systemic racism and in so doing raise the awareness necessary to grow an anti-racist society. If you have a Hidden History to submit, check here for more info.

Bisexual Black Feminist | BLK INK Editor-in-Chief

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Momentum is a blog that captures and reflects the moment we find ourselves in, one where rampant anti-Black racism is leading to violence, trauma, protest, reflection, sorrow, and more. Momentum doesn’t look away when the news cycle shifts.

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