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Gladys Bentley was born on August 12, 1907. She was the eldest of four children in her family. She was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is said that she had a rough childhood she was taunted because she was overweight and was also a “tomboy”. She ran away at the age of 16 to New York City to start a life.
We already discussed some of the Harlem Renaissance, so as you may remember, it was a type of “New Negro Movement” that took place in Harlem through the 1920s and 30s. During this time, the jazz and blues really flourished. Nightlife was dominated by cabarets and clubs. Here you can see the Cotton Club, which was a very popular Harlem club that featured a lot of black musicians, which played for white and black audiences.
Upon arriving to Harlem, Gladys started earning a living as a pianist and singer. She played the blues. She was known for improvising “indecent” lyrics to popular song melodies at the time. For instance, she combined the songs “Alice Blue Gown” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” into a song about anal sex. Gladys started out small, but then began to attract white audiences. She began playing at such notable venues as the Cotton Club and she headlined at The Clam House.
At the time, Gladys was known for dressing in “male” attire. She sported a white tux and top hat. She was described as a bull dagger, which means a masculine identifying lesbian – usual African American. Her songs frequently had raunchy lyrics and she was seen as a very strong and independent woman. She flaunted her sexuality and it is said that she even “married” her white lesbian lover.
After the stock market crash, Gladys kept going strong and tried to book gigs. However, in 1937 she moves to LA. There, she performed at mostly homosexual clubs. It is also said that she was harassed by the police for cross-dressing.
During the 1950s, Gladys started to change her act. It is speculated that the rise of McCarthyism may have had something to do with this. If you’re not familiar, McCarthyism was a period when the US started accusing people of being disloyal and treasonous without evidence. Homosexuals were said the be targets of McCarthyism because of their “deviant” nature.
Why I chose Gladys Bentley mainly is because of the article she wrote in 1952 entitled “I Am A Woman Again” - Fabulous entertainer tells how she found happiness in love after medical treatment to correct her strange affliction.
This picture here is the first paragraph in Gladys's article. She states, “For many years, I lived in a personal hell. Like a great number of lost souls, I inhabited that half-shadow no-man’s land which exists between the boundaries of the two sexes.”
Just the language that Gladys uses, I am a “woman” again, makes my skin crawl a little. Gladys offers that being a lesbian is not actual a form of woman-hood, but it is a “no-man’s land between the two sexes”. The medical treatment that she sough “cured” her, which also makes homosexuality sound like some sort of disease or affliction. However, it is thought that this article was just an attempt to salvage her career and not a completely true story. For me, this raises the question of nature vs. nurture, or even the question of brain chemistry in homosexuality.
Gladys Bentley Presentation
Gladys Bentley(1907-1960)<br />A Presentation By - Alex Ackerman<br />
Gladys Bentley<br /> Life<br /> Harlem Renaissance<br /> Career<br /> “I Am A Woman Again” <br />
Life<br />August 12, 1907 – January 18, 1960<br />Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania <br />Eldest of four children<br />Ran away to New York City at the age of 16<br />
Harlem Renaissance<br />1920s through 1930s<br />“New Negro Movement”<br />Jazz & blues flourishes<br />Cabaret and club life<br />
Career <br />Blues<br />Started working as a pianist and singer upon arriving to Harlem<br />Improvised “indecent” lyrics to popular melodies<br />Became popular with white audiences<br />Performed at the Cotton Club and The Clam House<br />
Career<br />Performed in a white tuxedo and top hat<br />Described as a “bulldagger”<br />Music featured raunchy lyrics<br />Married her white (woman) lover<br />Flaunted her sexuality<br />
Career<br />Left Harlem in 1937 for Los Angeles<br />Performed at clubs catered to a homosexual crowd<br />Was harassed by the police for cross-dressing<br />
“I Am A Woman Again”<br />Rise of McCarthyism<br />Homosexuals targeted<br />Gladys changes her act<br />Starts wearing dresses<br />
“I Am A Woman Again”<br />Gladys writes autobiographical article in Ebony Magazine<br />
“I Am A Woman Again”<br />Female hormone treatment “cures lesbianism”<br />
“I Am A Woman Again”<br />Married a man<br />Attempt to salvage career? <br />
Life<br />Gladys never regained musical popularity<br />Became a devoted member of church<br />Died January 16, 1960<br />
Works Cited<br />http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Bentley/BentleyBio.html<br />http://www.glbtq.com/arts/bentley_g.html<br />http://www.queermusicheritage.us/jun2004gb5.html<br />http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Bentley/Index.html<br />http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7634493<br />