Gladys Bentley, Butch Harlem Renaissance Blues Singer

bentley in suitGladys Bentley AKA Bobbie Bentley, 1907 – 1960, USA. (Biography from the Butch Lesbians Coloring Book series)
Gladys Bentley was a renowned blues singer during the 1920s and 30s, a pianist and entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance. Gladys played piano in gay male speakeasies, often sang about sissies and bulldaggers, and was a notorious flirt with the women in the audience. Resplendent in her signature white tuxedo and top hat given to her by the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, James Wilson writes that she was “Differing from the traditional male impersonator, or drag king, in the popular theater, Gladys Bentley did not try to ‘pass’ as a man, nor did she playfully try to deceive her audience into believing she was biologically male. Instead, she exerted a ‘black female masculinity’ that troubled the distinctions between black and white and masculine and feminine”. The Afro American (1936) described her stage act this way: “Prancing about in her cream-colored full-dress suit, her hair closely chopped and slicked down into a pompadour, Miss Bentley (whom many mistake for a man) delivers her prize number ‘Nothing Now Perplexes Like the Sexes, Because When You See Them Switch, You Can’t Tell Which is Which.’ In 1931, she scandalously married her white girlfriend in a civil ceremony in New Jersey. After the Great Depression, the social climate changed. By the time she had moved to LA in 1937 to watch over her mother, she was required to get special permits to dress in men’s clothing. Bentley told Ebony Magazine back in the ‘50s. “It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought so…From the time I can remember anything, even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me. Soon, I began to feel more comfortable in boys’ clothes than in dresses.” The U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated Bentley as a subversive because of her marriage to a white woman. Under pressure from the conservative McCarthy movement, Gladys started wearing dresses, was possibly forced to take estrogen, and eventually, somewhat unconvincingly, renounced her lesbianism.
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Aquino, Eloisa. Gladys Bentley: Life and Times of Butch Dykes. Montréal: B & D Press. 2010.
Doyle, JD. “Gladys Bentley”. Queer Music Heritage. http://www.queermusicheritage.com/bentley1.html.
Wilson, James F. Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2011.

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About Avery Cassell

Avery Cassell is a genderqueer San Francisco writer, poet, cartoonist, and artist who grew up in Iran. They live with their Maine Coon cat, Lulu, and bake yeasted waffles every Sunday morning. Behrouz Gets Lucky is their first novel. You can find their erotic short stories sprinkled in various anthologies, including Best Lesbian Erotica 2015 and Sex Still Spoken Here. Avery is currently working on a book of more of Behrouz and Lucky's shenanigans, a memoir, and an illustrated early reader children's book about a eight year old transgender boy and his family.
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