English soul singer Dusty Springfield (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien) was one of the top female artists of her generation. She took her stage name from her first group, the folksy-sounding Springfields, but left soon after to pursue a solo career that would last nearly four decades; although her popularity dwindled beginning in the 1970s, the inclusion of “Son of a Preacher Man” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack triggered a revival. Her album Dusty in Memphis was ranked as the 89th greatest of all time by Rolling Stone, and she has been honored in both the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the UK Music Hall of Fame. Springfield’s lesbianism was the focus of an off-Broadway musical based on her life.
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.)
Dubbed “The Mother of the Blues,” Rainey (who went by her stage name Ma Rainey) was an early 20th century American vocalist known for her powerful style and showmanship. She began with live shows, touring with her husband “Pa” Rainey, and eventually signed a record deal with Paramount, a company that relied on albums by African-American artists for much of its profit; unfortunately, the company’s records were of poor quality, and did not produce top-quality recordings of Rainey’s voice. Her lyrics, while often featuring brokenhearted women wailing over men, also included seminal lesbian works like “Prove It On Me Blues,” which featured a cover image of a butch woman (identified in the text with Rainey) flirting with two femmes. Between her sapphic stories and arrest after a lesbian orgy, Rainey was one of several blues musicians now considered gay or bisexual.
The lead singer for the punk band Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace, has been playing nonstop since dropping out of high school to tour first as a solo act and then a full band in every venue that would have her, laundromats included. She attributes her anti-authoritarian awakening to an unprovoked beating from the police. Several years went by until she found a broader audience with the albums New Wave and White Crosses; two years after White Crosses, she came out publicly as transgender, making her the highest profile trans musician in the business. Since then she’s been going strong as an activist, and has used her celebrity status for everything from releasing the album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, to clarifying the effects of hormone replacement therapy on voices, to creating a television series featuring interviews with other trans people.
When San Francisco’s South of Market district (known for its working-class gay leather community) was at risk of being labeled a blight and forcibly restructured in the 1980s, lesbian activist Kathleen Connell helped found the Folsom Street Fair to bring the community together in protest. Although she retired from the organizing committee only a few years in, the fair, as she recounts in an article on its website, flourished into a world famous celebration of all things queer and BDSM.
Outside of queer activism Connell has helped found multiple environmental organizations; at the time of this writing she runs at least one and teaches college courses on the side. Her environmentalism, as she describes here, is tied to her identity as a lesbian. While she ran an environmentalist blog, it has not updated since 2011.
When British fiction writer Nicola Griffith pled her case to emigrate to the United States her clearance came with a then-unheard of justification: it was, according to the State Department, “in the National Interest” to allow her to stay. Although the majority of her online hype at the time of this posting is focused on her historical fiction novel Hild (planned as the first of a trilogy based on the life of Saint Hilda of Whitby), she has also written in the science fiction and urban fantasy genres; in addition to her immigration approval (controversial because Griffith is a lesbian), she has also been honored with several awards, including a Nebula, Lambda, and James Tiptree, Jr. prize.
Author, art collector, lecturer, and proprietor of a chic Parisian gathering spot for up and coming creative celebrities, Gertrude Stein was a living cultural hub. Originally from California, she and her partner Alice B. Toklas moved to the Left Bank to join Stein’s brother Leo as he was pursuing painting. They opened up their household, 27 Rue de Fleurus, as a gallery for artists and writers like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. Stein’s own writing, a mix of poetry and prose, employed a deliberately simplified style that went on to play an influential role in American Modernism. Although Stein had a reputation for feminist and democratic politics, she was – and is – infamous for her support of the Vichy government during World War II, despite her own Jewish heritage.