Gladys Bentley was an American blues singer, pianist, entertainer and lesbian icon during the Harlem Renaissance. She became one of the best known and financially successful black women in the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s for the pioneering way she dealt with gender, sexuality, class and race in her act.
Bentley was born in 1907 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, although she would later claim to have been born in Port of Spain, Trinidad (her mother was Trinidadian). From a young age, she would wear her brothers clothes and felt more comfortable in these than in more stereotypically ‘female’ clothing.
At the age of 16, Bentley moved to New York City where she auditioned for a male piano player position at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House on 133rd Street, one of the city’s most notorious gay speakeasies. She wore white full dress shirts, stiff collars, small bow ties, oxfords, short Eton jackets, and hair cut straight back and became so successful that the club was renamed ‘Barbara’s Exclusive Club’ after her stage name at the time – Barbara “Bobbie” Minton. Bentley then moved on to performing at the Ubangi Club on Park Avenue where she became financially successful for her humorous and risqué act where she showcased her talents as piano player, singer and entertainer all while flirting with women in the audience. Bentley juxtaposed the sexually charged ‘black’ blues with romantic ‘white’ ballads and was the most prominent ‘mannish’ lesbian of the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, she recorded a number of singles and is said to have married a white woman in a non-legally binding ceremony in New Jersey – homosexuality was still illegal at the time and Bentley was later investigated by the The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities because of this.
In 1933, prohibition was repealed and the speakeasies were no longer needed, this, coupled with a crackdown on acts like ‘risqué’ acts like Bentleys meant that by 1938 the infamous Clam House was just another cellar. Bentley then moved to Los Angeles, and throughout the 1940’s she played club dates around California, including the legendary lesbian bar Mona’s 440 Club in San Francisco. From 1949, Bentley began to distance herself from her ‘out and proud’ image in an attempt to protect herself during the dangerous McCarthy years where her public homosexuality would have made her a target for persecution. Bentley would have been forced to obtain a special permit to performing men’s clothing if she had continued her act.
Bentley was later forced to completely renounce her ‘strange affliction’ of lesbianism to survive. In an 1952 interview with Ebony magazine entitled “I Am a Woman Again”, she claimed to have married a man, but he later denied that this was the case. She did go on to briefly marry a different man. Bentley died during the flu epidemic of 1960 at the age of 52, and her desperate attempts to survive in a time in which being herself was dangerous should not detract from her pioneering gender nonconforming former life. She is a significant and inspiring figure for the LGBT community and her refusal to try and ‘pass’ as a man meant that she “exerted a ‘black female masculinity’ that troubled the distinctions between black and white and masculine and feminine”.