by mae stephenson
Gladys Bentley (1907 - 1960)
Gladys Bentley was an out lesbian blues singer during the Harlem Renaissance. She moved to Harlem from Pennsylvania at age 16 and began performing at rent parties (thrown by artists for a cover charge to raise rent), soon graduating to speakeasies and nightclubs. She gained immense notoriety for her raunchy renditions of popular songs, always performed in her signature tux and top hat. She began recording her music in the 1930's, and while politics of the era forced her to forego including her songs with lesbian lyrics, she still performed them at clubs and attracted a predominately gay audience. Once the "lavender scare" and McCarthyism hit in the 1950's, Bentley became a prime target an as out lesbian bulldagger in the entertainment industry. Despite her previous marriage to a white woman in New Jersey, she quickly married a man and began wearing dresses, touting salvation via the consumption of female hormones. Her efforts to survive in a dangerous era are seen as a piece of her important herstory.