Welcome to YESTERQUEERS, Kayla Goggin's monthly column dedicated to LGBTQ icons throughout history.
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the girls just like any old man.
- "Prove It On Me" by Ma Rainey, 1928
It's 1926 and a 250-lb black lesbian named Gladys Bentley is on stage at a club called the Clam House in Harlem's "Jungle Alley.” Dressed in a white tuxedo and top hat, she sings and scats herself hoarse to a crowd of queer admirers. Throwing their voices into the waves of cigarette smoke curls, they sing along with her pounding piano: "Lord, if you can't send me a woman, please send me some sissy man." Two years later, Bentley publicly married her white girlfriend in an Atlantic City, NJ, ceremony.*
If that all went down in the 1920s, why haven't you ever heard about it?
When people talk about the Harlem renaissance they talk about the remarkable literature, art and music that came out of the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan from 1918 until 1929. They're not wrong—some of America's most important cultural moments and artifacts were created there. What nobody talks about, though, is that most of the artists, musicians, writers, and entertainers who produced those works of art were, in fact, queer.
Langston Hughes? Gay. Ma Rainey? Gay. Alain Locke? Gay. Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker, Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Alberta Hunter, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké? All queer as the day is long.
Though the Harlem section of Manhattan only covers three square miles of land, over 175,000 African Americans lived there during the renaissance, making it the neighborhood with the largest concentration of black people in America. (It still is today, by the way.)
Racial tensions in the South and the employment boom after World War I caused a mass diaspora; over 750,000 black Americans left the South for Northern urban centers. And who could blame them? Between 1910 and 1930, 1.6 million people moved from the rural south to northern industrial cities. (Shout out to Georgia, which saw net declines in its black population for three consecutive decades after 1920 because of its racial hostility! Ah, southern hospitality.)
With such an influx of black residents, Harlem became a cradle for the fostering of a new black cultural identity. Alain Locke, an intellectual leader of the movement and the first black Rhodes scholar, described it as a "spiritual emancipation.”
In "Enter the New Negro,” Locke wrote:
The cultural shift (at least in the North) was palpable.
In 1922, after a decade in which major commercial publishers issued almost zero books by black Americans, Hancourt Brace published both James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry and Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows. By 1925, four of Langston Hughes' poems appeared in the September issue of Vanity Fair, and urban America's new favorite pastime was getting secretly drunk off of prohibition gin and blues music sung by queer black women.
"The pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem," Locke wrote.
Social disillusionment turned into racial pride as black-owned magazines and newspapers gave black Americans a platform to prove their humanity and demand their equality through art. For the first time in American history, a black gay subculture was permitted to surface.
In 1925, when the renaissance was in full swing, New York could've powered half its grid with the energy from all those closets exploding open.
Rent parties, buffet flats, and speakeasies finally gave black queer people spaces to meet, hook up, and get down. Drag balls at the Rockland Palace and the Savoy Ballroom made Harlem's gay culture impossible to ignore, especially when they were giving out costume prizes to men in spangled chiffon dresses.
At the Savoy, first prize usually corresponded to the scantiest outfit—Steven Watson writes in The Harlem Renaissance that it was once awarded to a man wearing an apron, silver sandals, apple-green paint, and nothing else. Taylor Gordon, a famous concert singer, wrote in 1929: "The show that was put on that night for a dollar admission, including the privilege to dance, would have made a twenty-five dollar George White's "Scandals" opening look like a sideshow in a circus." Delicious.
In 2016, I think we tend to look back at the queers of the past and believe there's no way they could've possibly partied as hard or gotten as weird as we do today. Here's Ruby Smith, niece of Bessie Smith, giving an account of her experience at her aunt's 1920s buffet flat (a kind of after-hours speakeasy, usually in someone's apartment):
"They had a faggot there that was great—people used to come there just to watch him make love to another man. He was that great. He'd give a tongue bath and everything. . . That same house had a woman that used to. . . take a cigarette, light it, and puff it with her pussy. A real educated pussy."
A real educated pussy! By the way—despite her marriage (to a man), Bessie Smith had countless affairs with women, famously screaming at one of her chorus line girlfriends during a tour, "I got twelve women on this show and I can have one every night if I want it!"
There was an openness about sexuality—influenced, some believe, by the honesty of blues music—that bled into nearly every artistic pursuit during the renaissance. Writers like Richard Bruce Nugent became the first to write from an openly gay, black perspective; still more black gay writers held growing influence in the lit world, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke in particular (the two even had a brief affair in Paris).
Don’t forget though—this haven for creativity and self-expression existed in 1920s America, where homophobia was still really real.
Harlem's most powerful minister, Adam Clayton Powell, actively campaigned against what he saw as "the growing scourge of sexual perversion,” calling the annual Hamilton Lodge Drag Ball the "dance of the fairies.” Black gay people were sent to psychiatric institutions in droves; some were simply arrested and thrown into reformatories. Even the most famous weren't safe: Augustus Granville Dill, the business editor of the NAACP's Crisis and personal protege of W. E. B. du Bois, had his career destroyed when he was arrested for soliciting sex in a public restroom.
Despite the bullshit, black queers continued to make art and flourish—leaving us more incredible art about the shaping of a new black identity than we deserved.
"In Harlem I found courage and joy and tolerance," says a gay character in Blair Niles' 1931 novel Strange Brother. "I can be myself there. . . They know all about me and I don't have to lie."
* At the time, Harlem was tolerant enough that black lesbians and butch/femme couples married in large wedding ceremonies, complete with bridesmaids and attendants. These marriages were legal, but only because the marriage licenses were obtained by masculinizing one of the women’s first names or by getting a gay male surrogate to apply for it instead.
Kayla Goggin is a freelance writer based in Savannah, GA. She is the editor of the Savannah Art Informer, the arts columnist for Connect Savannah and has contributed writing to MESH Magazine, XOJane, and elsewhere.
How Does a Bulldagger Get Out of the Footnote? or Gladys Bentley’s Blues by Regina V. Jones
Bessie by Chris Albertson
Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. by Cary D. Wintz & Paul Finkelman
Encyclopedia of African American History, vol. 1, ed. by Paul Finkelman
“Enter the New Negro” by Alain Locke
Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent by Bruce Nugent and Thomas H. Wirth
The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture by Steven Watson
Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African American Fiction by Devon W. Carbado & Donald Weise
Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance by A.B. Christa Schwarz