Meet Gladys Bentley: The Gender Non-Conforming Queen of the Harlem Renaissance
Written by Jasica Gill
Women from all walks of life are held to a different and much higher standard in order to gain the same recognition as the men around them. This is especially true in the music and entertainment industry. The theme of women having to perform to the best of their ability not only in their craft, but in every other facet of their lives, isn’t new to women today. This issue has been around for as long as women have had talent and the desire to display it. Despite the odds against them, women have always found ways to shine bright even when their lights have been systemically sabotaged by the powers that be.
Gladys Alberta Bentley, who often performed under her drag-king name Bobbie Minton, was a Black gender-nonconforming lesbian who dominated the Harlem Renaissance scene. Her dynamic piano playing, blues songs about sexism and abusive relationships, and ability to alter her voice in a way that sounded identical to a trumpet, attracted audiences of all types.
Born on August 12, 1907, an opulent Leo, Gladys Bentley was destined to show up and show out. From an early age, she felt different and wrote about this in her 1952 “I Am A Woman Again” profile published in Ebony magazine. There she explains how she loved to don her brother’s clothes, and only after ridicule from other children and her own parents, she conceded to wear feminine clothes. Music and entertainment, however, brought Bentley back into the style of clothing and gender expression that she felt most comfortable in. She recalls being at Connie’s Inn one night in Harlem where she met a friend who told her that the Mad House, a popular nearby nightclub was looking for a pianist to start working right away. The caveat was that they were looking for a male pianist to take the spot. Bentley replied with the same confidence and poise reflected in her performances, “There’s no better time for them to start using a girl.” From there it was history and she went on to perform at all types of nightclubs and bars, including the Harry Hansberry Clam House, which was regarded as the most swinging gay uptown establishment during the Renaissance years.
Bentley describes how she went from performing in skirts, full dress shirts, and oxfords in her earlier years to tailor-made suits with tails, top hats, and a cane to match each costume. As she gained more recognition and success, she felt more comfortable embracing her true self, which she had spent much of her childhood suppressing.
Not only was Bentley loved dearly by her audience, she was also a darling of several literary geniuses and social activists of the time. In Langston Hughes’s autobiography The Big Sea, he refers to 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.”
Throughout her life Bentley continued to win the hearts of those around her, but ultimately struggled to find peace within herself. She notes in her Ebony profile how despite being a successful star, she was ultimately a sad and lonely person.
In later years, her acclaimed article would receive backlash from critics as she seemed to denounce many of the labels she appeared to pioneer throughout her years as a drag performer. She was known by most as an out and proud lesbian, yet in her profile, she claims to have been cured of her queer ways, and “found happiness in love after medical treatment to correct her strange affliction”.
However, it’s important to take a deeper look into the context and year that her account was published. Assistant Professor of Minority Studies and author Regina V. Jones explains in her essay that during the McCarthy Era, lesbian women and gay men were outlawed and lost their jobs consequently when their sexuality became public knowledge. Jones speculates that the politics of the time forced Bentley back into the closet, and her Ebony confessional was a means to appease the black middle-class bourgeois the magazine catered to. She had a “lavender marriage” and began wearing dresses again as a way to preserve her career and safety.
One cannot for certain say how exactly Gladys Bentley felt about her sexuality and gender, however, it is clear that she challenged the norms and did what she could to feed her soul. In a world where the intersections of her identity made it more than difficult to navigate and find happiness, she still left a legacy of excellent music, performanship, and style. Her talent and love for music opened up doors that may not have been accessible to those with similar realities, but the fact that she gained such recognition, hopefully inspired and motivated those who identified with her to keep pushing and going.
Her music can be found on most streaming platforms, and you would be doing yourself a huge disservice by not exploring it.