Historiography Saturday: Gladys Bentley

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The tux-wearing, blues-singing, self-described bulldagger known as Gladys Bentley played a somber tune in her recordings but switched out the lyrics to popular melodies at her New York City live performances to make the audience blush (and enrich her flirting with the available ladies). When the Depression hit and prohibition ended, taking with them the popularity of her music and the tolerance for outspoken lesbianism, she found a brief resurgence in the gay bars of San Francisco, but retired to become a minister.

Bentley’s dramatic retirement, marked by an article in Ebony magazine entitled “I Am Woman Again”, was a public departure from both show business and homosexuality. In the context of high-profile McCarthyism witch hunts her decision made sense; looking back it makes for a striking example of how an individual’s insistence on a certain identity is not above questioning. (One possible explanation for her subsequent marriage is that she was attracted to men as well as women, but given her claims to have married a woman in a civil ceremony and her bookings in lesbian bars, heterosexuality seems unlikely, and in a subsequent interview she implied that she was having a relationship with both a man and a woman.)

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