Historic Profile: Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

This past February The New York Times published an issue of obituaries dedicated to influential African-American figures who never got an obituary when they died. One of these figures is Gladys Bentley, a queer entertainer who defied gendered standards at the time.

Bentley was born in 1907 and raised in Philadephia, and it was a very unpleasant childhood because her parents were homophobic and couldn’t accept their daughter’s sexuality. To escape this painful reality she played piano and wrote songs, and moved to New York City at the age of 16 to perform in illicit bars. One of these bars was the Clam House, Harlem’s hub for LGBTQ people. Even though Gladys used she/her pronouns in public, she was the first prominent performer at the time to identify in these spaces as trans. During the Prohibition Era, there was less stringency on what was allowed in the entertainment industry, so people were more relaxed about Gladys expressing herself. But as time went on and the Great Depression hit America, the public lost favor with Gladys and the police even cracked down on one of her performances, so she left NYC and moved to Los Angeles, where she once again gained her status as the leading queer entertainer there. She performed mainly at Mona’s 440 Club, the first lesbian bar in San Francisco. In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy instilled anti-Communist ideologies in the public mind, and so any individual thought to be working against the government faced serious punishment. McCarthy mainly attacked artists and LGBTQ+ people, and so under this threat, Gladys changed her image to appeal to a straight audience and underwent hormone treatments to try and make herself straight. In 1960, she died from flu while studying to become a Christian minister.

I remember taking a course in the Harlem Renaissance, and I vaguely remember learning about Gladys Bentley in the course. The Harlem Renaissance was a crucial time in which black queer people such as writer James Baldwin, academic Alain Locke and Bentley flourished. Reading Bentley’s obituary taught me the importance of recognizing those people who are often forgotten in history. The pain she suffered as a queer person of color is so real, even for today in an age where more queer POC have mediums through which they can make their stories heard and help shift the public’s consciousness. I often take it for granted that we have public figures like RuPaul and Todrick Hall, but the fact that it isn’t until centuries after her death that Bentley got recognized in The New York Times once again taught me to always educate myself on the people who don’t make it in the history textbooks, who don’t get a huge social media following. I also take it for granted now that many LGBTQ+ artists such as myself can express themselves without the government always punishing them or censoring them for their work, but back then Gladys Bentley had to try and change her sexuality because she was literally fighting for her safety against the government. It reminded me of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and how deep-seated homophobia was in Britain during the 19th and 20th century (Turing was forced to undergo painful hormonal therapy to try and make him not gay anymore. All it did was cause him misery, to be honest). Reading Bentley’s obituary taught me that I must make my own voice heard so that I can inspire other young queer artists (especially queer artists of color) who somehow think their voice doesn’t matter. Because trust me, these narratives matter and it’s how we can gradually bring about more open dialogue about LGBTQ+ people of color in history.

So I thank you Gladys from the bottom of my heart, for being a pioneer for queer POC artists everywhere.

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