[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…