The 1920s and 1930s introduced the world to a “gender blending” chanteuse and pianist named Gladys Bentley, aka Barbara “Bobbie” Minton. In top hat and tails, Bentley embodied the cultural decadence and sexual progressivism of the Harlem Renaissance. Her powerful voice was matched by her physique. Big and Black and beautiful, she performed at speakeasies and bars across Harlem, flirting with ladies in the audience like a 90s R&B star.
In his autobiography, Langston Hughes described Bentley as “an amazing exhibition of musical energy — a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard — a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.” Although some of her contemporaries of the Black Renaissance era also had known queer identities, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Ma Rainey never performed in drag like Bentley did.
Bentley was the eldest of four children. She was born to a mother who’d dreamed of having a boy as her first child. In a 1952 essay for Ebony magazine, Bentley wrote about the loneliness of growing up unwanted. She admits to hating her brothers when they came along. Initially, to be petty, she’d steal their suits to wear to school. Eventually, she would prefer her brothers’ clothes to what girls were supposed to wear. Bentley had been “different” for a long time. Early on, her parents worried about her attraction to women and sent her to doctors to get a medical diagnosis of her queerness. Bentley’s parents were ashamed of, and confused by the person she was growing into. She wondered how her life might’ve turned out if they hadn’t been.
In 1923, Bentley left her home in Philadelphia for New York City. Harlem. She was 16.
In “tailor-made clothes, top hat and tails, with a cane to match each costume, stiff-bosomed shirt, wing collar tie and matching shoes. [In] two black outfits, one maroon and a tan, grey, and white,” Bentley became a star on the Harlem Renaissance scene. She’d become a headliner at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, Harlem’s premier gay nightlife destination. She made plenty of money, drove fancy cars and surrounded herself with luxuries. White folks worked for her; she even married a White woman in New Jersey in 1931. But in the Ebony essay, “I Am A Woman Again,” Bentley said her personal life was hell and attributed her misfortunes to her binaryness and homosexuality — her sins.
Because of her visibility as a lesbian, Bentley would become a target of the Red Scare. This era in American history was defined by accusations that people who challenged status quos were working with the Soviets and Communists to undermine U.S. power. They were “subversives,” subject to rejection from family and friends, harassment by law enforcement, and arbitrary violations of their civil rights. By the 1950s, Bentley sought deliverance from her subversive-looking life. She gave up her masculine persona and lesbian romances. She visited a physician who told her her sex organs were “infantile.” And prescribed six months of weekly injections of female hormones to counteract her overproduction of male ones. By her 1958 appearance on the television show, You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx, the dapper old Gladys were gone. Before her death in 1960, she would marry twice more — to men each of those times. The tea is that they were known as “lavender marriages,” aka, scams that provided the cover of heterosexuality.
The intersection of Blackness and queerness comes with enormous risks. Last year in New York, a man fractured a woman’s spine because she’d been kissed by another woman on the subway. Also last year, we learned that trans women of color have a life expectancy of just 35 years. And earlier this month, Jussie Smollett survived an attack where a couple of White dudes called him a “faggot” and slipped a rope around his neck. Living at the intersection of Black and queer carries a heavy toll sometimes. I think Gladys Bentley paid it for as long as she could.
Daring to live as an out and proud Black “bulldagger” in the 1930s made her an icon who seemed twenty feet tall. But the world she had to live in, and the choices she had to make to be protected from it, brought her back to human size.
I don’t buy her conversion into a dress-wearing straight woman. The effort she put into that performance makes me sad. I revisit her words: the detailed way she lists off her suits, that’s pride; the description of her crush on a female elementary school teacher, that was pure. Technically, Bentley’s tuxes and tails were costumes for her drag performances. I think suited-up Bentley was probably the truest version of the woman. Perhaps the best blues performance she ever gave was living as a straight woman.
Cover photo: Carl Van Vechten, Ubangi Club in Harlem, early 1930s.