Pride Highlight: Gladys Bentley
Hello my fellow Rustins, I want to talk about Gladys Bentley and her impact for the culture. Bentley was a gender-bending performer during the Harlem Renaissance. A time when it was not common for women to dress as men. Drag kings are mostly female performance artists who dress in masculine drag and personify male gender stereotypes as part of an individual or group routine. Donning a top hat and tuxedo, Bentley would sing the blues in Harlem establishments like the Clam House and the Ubangi Club. She dressed in men's clothes which included (A signature tail coat and top hat), played piano, and sang her own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes of the day in a deep, growling voice while flirting with women in the audience.. She even was backed up by a chorus line of drag queens when she performed for large crowds. The term Drag Queen refers to a person, usually male, who uses drag clothing and makeup to imitate and often exaggerate female gender signifiers and gender roles for entertainment purposes.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the early 1900's was not always easy for Gladys. When she was a child, she felt unwanted or rejected because her mother desperately wanted her to have been born a boy. She also expressed that her grandmother raised her for 6 months on a bottle before they could persuade my mother to take care of her own baby. This made the relationship with her mother an unpleasant one growing up. She believed that growing up feeling rejected shaped her behavior; No man could touch her, hated her brothers, wore boys' clothes and even had a crush on her school teacher, With the decline of the Harlem era plus the repeal of Prohibition made her
moved to southern California, where she was called "America's Greatest Sepia Piano Player" and the "Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs". To continue her musical career by playing in a number of gay nightspots but did not achieve as much success like before. Time passed and federal laws continued to change, even where Bentley had to carry special permits to allow her to perform in men's clothing. She was frequently harassed for wearing men's clothing. Her musical tale
nt and success made Bentley a significant and inspiring figure for some in the LGBT community and African Americans, and she was an well known figure during the Harlem Renaissance. According to the New York Times, Bentley was said to be "Harlem's most famous lesbian" in the 1930s and "among the best-known Black entertainers in the United States."At aged 52, Bentley died of pneumonia unexpectedly at her home in Los Angeles on January 18, 1960.
We Thank Gladys Bentley for being her authentic self during a time being an openly lesbian could have been dangerous in certain situations. She brought entertainment to some many people and obvious it was done with killer style.