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Gladys Bentley Was a Gender Outlaw


Gladys Bentley Was a Gender Outlaw

Story by Kaitlyn Greenidge

This Women’s History Month, as women and queer people in the United States face growing challenges to their bodily autonomy, it’s encouraging to turn to audacious women from the past who also lived through challenging times. My forthcoming book, The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire Before Stonewall, is filled with stories of women who surmounted life in the Jim Crow era to craft the relationships they desired, and Gladys Bentley was one of the boldest of them all.

Bentley was the most popular and infamous speakeasy performer in Prohibition-era New York. A large, masculine, Black woman—a “bulldagger,” in the language of her day—she was known for wearing a white tuxedo and top hat onstage while expertly playing the piano and singing dirty versions of popular songs to rapt“slumming” audiences. She even married her white girlfriend in a well-publicized Atlantic City wedding ceremony.

There is a rich history of “male impersonators” on the popular American stage going back to the 19th century, who today are often known as “drag kings.” Some of these performers actively crafted male personae, but others like Bentley used the category of male impersonator just to be their masculine selves, on and off the stage...


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