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Fri Oct 4, 2019, 05:45 AM

This gender non-conforming blues singer was a Harlem Renaissance super star

Marlene Dietrich wasn’t the only female star who could pull off a tuxedo. Gladys Bentley cut quite a dashing figure in her tux as well.

She said to You Bet Your Life host Groucho Marx, “I from Port of Spain, Trinidad,” but Gladys Bently was born in Philadelphia, in 1907, to an African American father and a mother who may have been from Trinidad. She had a miserable childhood, for which she blamed her mother, who had wanted a son.

Bentley would later recall that she was conflicted about her sexual identity at an early age and feeling more comfortable in her brother’s clothes.


When she developed a crush on a female schoolteacher, her mother, Mary, sought the help of doctors to “fix” her daughter. Bentley, from the age of 8, would compose and perform songs and stories as an emotional outlet which would eventually become a career.

During the early 1900s, and for Bentley’s entire lifetime, health professionals viewed homosexuality as curable medical condition or abnormality. That stigma caused the history and presence of gay and lesbian African Americans to remain hidden before the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance broke that silence.

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