Courtney Gillette (via The real lives of celesbians | AfterEllen.com)
Way before Janelle Monae made cute suits her signature, or Lady Gaga was flaunting her alter ego Jo Calderone, there was Gladys Bentley, flirting and singing the blues in men’s clothing during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance.
Why no one has paid Betley homage with a proper documentary or biography is baffling to me. She wasn’t just into women (gossip columns were all a twitter when Bentley married a white woman in Atlantic City), she was an openly lesbian performer, who sang the blues not only at rent parties and speakeasies but at well known gay establishments. As for her style and preference for suits (and top hats! Homegirl rocks a top hat like nobody’s business!), she later told Ebony magazine, “It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought so….From the time I can remember anything, even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me…Soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys clothes than in dresses.”
The sad ending, though, came when Betley caved to the conservative pressures of the McCarthy era and “reformed,” marrying a dude, donning dresses, and saying she’d been cured. She also denounced her former ways as an effort to gain a mainstream audience, but that flopped. Gossip, style, blues, speakeasies, love affairs: Gladys Bentley’s life has the makings of some killer nonfiction. Who’s game?