Honoring the Legacy of Lesbian Blues Singers

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When we learn about the history of queer people in the U.S., many of us are taught that queer people who lived before Stonewall were completely unable to express their identities. Too often, people view queerness as “new” or as a “white people thing.” However queer and trans people––including queer and trans people of color––existed long before the first brick was thrown at Stonewall. And during certain pockets of U.S. history, queer people were able to live their lives with a significant degree of openness and freedom.

One of the most prominent examples of these pockets of history occurred during the Harlem Renaissance, a period spanning the 1920s of Black cultural and artistic explosion in Harlem, New York. While many people know about parts of the Harlem Renaissance that explored race, historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes that the Harlem Renaissance “…was surely as gay as it was black.” For example, many contemporary readers believe iconic Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes was gay due to the gay subtext within his works. One of the most prominent parts of Harlem’s queer subculture was its lesbian blues music scene. Hughes favored discussing queerness through subtle literary subtext, while these lesbian blues singers were able to be much more explicit about their life experiences in their music. These women formed a thriving lesbian subculture through their gatherings in the many Harlem nightclubs.

The blues music scene of the 1920s allowed Black women to explore and express raw truths about their lives and sexualities. Angela Davis argues in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism that we can learn so much by studying these blues singers. According to Davis, the legacy these women left behind through their music serves as a “…rich terrain for examining a historical feminist consciousness that reflected the lives of working-class black communities.” She further notes that the lesbian singers specifically “…openly challenged the gender politics implicit in traditional cultural representations of marriage and heterosexual love relationships.” Feminist traditions are often preserved and passed down in non-academic mediums like songs or stories. Thankfully, many songs written and performed by Black women of all sexual orientations were recorded for contemporary listeners to enjoy and learn from. More specifically, the work and life stories left behind by lesbian singers Gladys Bentley, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and Lucille Bogan allow contemporary listeners a glimpse into this mysterious, wonderful world of lesbian blues nightclub culture.

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960)

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Even as a young girl, Gladys Bentley defied oppressive gender roles. During her youth, she refused to follow her school dress code and wore pants to school, which would not be allowed by most schools for another 40 years. As an adult, she continued defying heterosexist gender roles by publicly exuding her Black lesbian sexual energy. She was known for her raunchy lyrics and her unapologetic expression of Black lesbian sexuality. Langston Hughes wrote that she was “…an amazing exhibition of musical energy––a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard…” Bentley even married a white woman in a ceremony in New Jersey. At the time, lesbian couples were sometimes able to become legally married by making one of their names sound masculine or by having a gay man surrogate for the legal procedure. Heartbreakingly, due to a rise in homophobia later on in her life, she later married a man and wrote an essay entitled “I Am a Woman Again” about how she underwent hormone therapy in an attempt to ‘turn her straight.’ Despite the tragic end of her life, Gladys Bentley’s memory lives on.

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1899-1933):

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Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s song entitled “Prove It On Me Blues” is one of the best examples of the fearless expression of lesbian sexuality during the Harlem Renaissance. The imagery in the advertisement for the release of the record showed Rainey wearing a men’s jacket and tie while a policeman looked on at her trying to seduce two women on a street corner.  Some of the lyrics include “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men / It’s true I wear a collar and a tie / Make the wind blow all the while / ‘Cause they say I do it / Ain’t nobody caught me / They sure got to prove it on me” Scholar Hazel Carby points out in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism that the song “vacillates between the subversive hidden activity of women loving women [and] a public declaration of lesbianism.” This kind of nuanced discussion of identity is exactly what Davis sees as so valuable about studying songs like “Prove It on Me Blues.”

Lucille Bogan (1897-1948):

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Lucille Bogan’s songs are unapologetically raunchy. She discusses alcoholism, sex, and of course, lesbianism. One of her most famous songs, “B.D. Woman’s Blues,” gives rare insight into a femme lesbian’s perspective. The B.D. stands for bulldagger––a term specifically used by Black lesbians at the time for women who exuded a masculine energy. Just like “Prove It on Me Blues” expresses a nuanced relationship with regards to expressing a lesbian identity, “B.D. Woman’s Blues” expresses ambivalent feelings toward these bulldagger women. Bogan expresses both admiration for their masculine swagger as well as contempt for the way they treat more femme women. Bogan sings “Comin’ a time, B.D. women ain’t gonna need no men / Oh the way they treat us is a lowdown and dirty sin…B.D. women, you know they sure is rough / They all drink plenty whiskey and they sure will strut their stuff.”

As a queer woman, I was personally so inspired and moved to learn about these amazing women and the bold, uncompromising ways they expressed themselves. It is so deeply important that we honor the legacies of queer people who came before us and make sure that they are not erased from history. These three women can teach us so much about the past and the present, and their music is deeply soulful and inspiring. I seriously encourage you to listen to their songs and appreciate these badass lesbian foremothers!

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