In this article, written by Gladys Bentley in 1952 for Ebony Magazine, Bentley renounces her years of inhabiting ‘the no-man’s land which exists between the boundaries of the two sexes.’
I’ve searched for this article for almost two years as I was gathering background information for my album Twilight for Gladys Bentley, a ‘re-imagining’ of the 1920′s blues singer and ‘bulldagger.’ I have found excerpts, but never the entire article (shouts to Corinna Kahnke for sharing). I am truly moved as I write, aiming to grasp the many complexities of the masks she wore, the external gazes that found her guilty in the court of social normalcy after living so many years as a confident, self-asserting, brash and unforgiving ‘bulldagger’. Please take a moment to read and share any comments you might have.
Letters to the Editor following publication of “I Am Woman Again”
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Thank you so much for this!!!! The Ebony archive now online for some reason only starts in 1959.
I enjoyed reading this piece! Thank you for finding the article.
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This article is so indicative of the times. I am saddened that society, religion and the social mores of the day had such a negative effect on homosexuals. In this article she seems so convinced that the hormones helped to change her sexual orientation. The thought of taking a hormone in todays society to change your sexual orientation is ludicrous. The pictures were so sexist. Again, a sign of the times. She, at one time, was an out and proud woman. I wonder what transpired that made her make the decision to live as a straight woman. I also found it interesting that she was only married for a short time. I wonder how long her same sex relationships lasted. As with civil rights, gay rights have made so many positive strides and yet we are still fighting for equal rights for all people regardless of race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation. Thank you for finding this article, I found it very interesting.
In reply to the last poster asking what probably prompted Gladys to live as a straight woman,
“Gladys Bentley carved out a place for herself amidst this curiosity, playing at rent parties and the legendary speakeasies of “Jungle Alley” at 133 between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. She would transform popular tunes of the day with raunchy naughty playful lyrics. Dressed in signature tux and top hat , she openly and riotously flirted with women in the audience. Her popularity and salary was ever increasing , as she was frequently mentioned in many of the entertainment columns of the day.
Characters based on her appeared in novels (Carl Van Vechtens’ “Parties”, Clement Woods “Deep River”, Blair Niles “Strange Brother”). Starting in 1928 ( at age 21) she began a recording career that spanned 2 decades. 8 recordings for the OKeh recording company were followed by a side with the Washboard Serenader’s on the Victor label. Although on her recordings she did not dare have lesbian lyrics , she certainly played up this image in the clubs and in public.
Lois Sobel, a popular columnist of the era, recalled Bentleys announcement of her marriage ceremony with her white female lover in New Jersey. Bentley briefly parlayed her fortunes into a Park Avenue apartment, servants, beautiful car etc. etc. In the 1930s the repeal of Prohibition quickly eroded the prominence of Harlem bistros. Furthermore, the Great Depression seems to have ended much of the “anything goes” spirit of tolerance that had pervaded in the 1920s’. Despite this, initially Bentley was able to hold on by cultivating her homosexual following. In the early 1930′s she was the featured entertainer at Harlem’s’ Ubangi Club, supported by a chorus of men in drag. But by 1937 the glory days of Jungle Alley were very much a thing of the past. Bentley (now aged 30) moved to Los Angeles to live with her mother in a small California bungalow. She was able to maintain some success , particularly during World War 2 when many homosexual bars proliferated on the west coast (capitalizing on the influx of gay men and lesbians from the military) Once again, Bentley carved out a niche for herself in this subculture and environment. Many lesbian women came to see her shows at “Joquins’ El Rancho” in Los Angeles and “Monas” in San Francisco, although on occasion she did have legal trouble for performing in her signature male attire. In 1945 she recorded 5 discs for the Excelsior label (still not daring to use lesbian lyrics in recordings) including “Thrill Me Till I get My Fill,” “Find Out What He Likes”, and “Notoriety Papa”. However, in the 1950s the limited tolerance that had been eroding since the Great Depression, finally collapsed disastrously. The McCarthy “witch hunts” were particularly vicious towards homosexuals.
In light of recent revelations about J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohen and possibly McCarthy himself this movement was all the more hypocritical. Although gay and lesbian organizations like The Daughters Of Bilitis and The Mattachine Society were formed at this time, the lives of many homosexuals were ruined. Bentley, who for so long had been one of THE most open as regards her homosexuality, was of course a sitting duck for persecution. Out of desperate fear for her own survival (particularly with an aging mother to support) Gladys Bentley started wearing dresses, and sanitizing her act. In 1950, Bentley wrote a desperate, largely fabricated article for Ebony entitled “I am Woman Again” in which she claimed to have cured her lesbianism via female hormone treatments and was finally at peace after a “hell as terrible as dope addiction”.Referenced from here: http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Bentley/BentleyBio.html
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