Gladys Bentley (known as Bobbie Minton on stage) was a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance, being one the most successful Black performers in the 1920s and 30s. Bentley was known for dressing in her iconic black-and-white tuxedo, with a top hat and singing blues standards, whilst adding her own raunchy lyrics and adlibs. Bentley was one of the pioneers of challenging gender stereotypes, pushing the boundaries of gender and sexuality through her music.
Bentley was born in Philadelphia, August 12th, 1907, to parents George L. Bentley and Mary Bentley. ‘Bentley reported wearing her three younger brothers’ suits to school when growing up. Her parents tried to “cure” Bentley by taking her to numerous doctors’. Bentley, by the time she turned 16, ran away to New York and began to pursue a career as a blues singer, she was also a very talented pianist, as well as singer. At first, she performed ‘at rent parties and buffet flats’ but then began expanding into performing at clubs in Jungle Alley. It was at the Clam House, on 133rd Street, however, where Bentley made her name. In her ‘“Night-Club Map of Harlem”’ cartoonist Elmer Simms, featured Bentley, playing the piano. Bentley ‘also created her own musical revue’, that headlined the Ubangi Club from 1934-1937, which featured a chorus of male dancers dressed in drag.
Bentley was the most prominent lesbian figure and performer in the early 1930s. As well as being known for her musical and performing talent, her style was equally significant. Bentley wrote that ‘“For the customers of the club, one of the unique things about my act was the way I dressed…I wore immaculate full white dress shirts with stiff collars, small bowties…short Eton jackets and hair cut straight back”’ Bentley also frequently ‘confronted male entitlement and sexual abuse in her lyrics and declared her own sexual independence’. Langston Hughes, (American poet, playwright, writer and social activist) said that she was ‘“an amazing exhibition of musical energy…a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm”’. Bentley reported that she had gotten married to a white woman, through a civil ceremony in New Jersey, but the identity of the woman was not released.
The advent of Prohibition and the Depression, however, meant that Bentley began to encounter increasing prejudice. ‘In 1934, a run at the King’s Terrence on 52nd Street was cut short under pressure from the police’. Bentley left N.Y. in 1937 and moved to Los Angeles where ‘she became a leading entertainer’. Bentley, however, sometimes had to wear skirts whilst performing in order to please the owners of the clubs. She found a home, however, at Mona’s 440 Club, which was less restrictive being the first Lesbian Bar to be opened in San Francisco.
With the advent of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, repressive policies and attacks began to being carried out against homosexuals. Despite never stopping touring Bentley did begin to wear women’s clothing when she was on stage. In 1952 ‘she wrote in an essay in Ebony, which was titled ‘“I am a Woman Again”’, where she announced that she had received hormone treatments to assist her in identifying as heterosexual. Scholars have argued that this was a result of the political climate at the time. Bentley died in 1960, at age 52.
Bentley remains a pioneering figure from the Harlem Renaissance, pushing the boundaries of gender stereotypes and identity through her music and performances.