LGBTQ* Novels/Books To Keep On Your Radar
Novels with Black/African-American Lesbian Themes or Characters (1920s-1970s)
Richards, Dell. Lesbian Lists: A Look at Lesbian Culture, History, and Personalities. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990. p.34
Do you know anything about the history of drag/performing other genders for people of color? I'm stuck at Gladys Bentley. There doesn't seem to be a lot of info. Help?
I have been doing quite a bit of drag research lately and I can tell you I feel like my head is going to explode from the amount of awesome and the equal amount of “BUT I WANT THE REST OF THE STORY!” It is heartbreaking how much queer culture was never placed from moment to paper.
As you said, Gladys Bently (find a KNOWhomo post about her HERE) was one of the most widely known performers of her day. I think it is really important that people realize how incredibly different sexuality and sensuality were at the turn of the 20th century versus now. Everything that led towards the Flapper movement and the Jazz/Harlem arts explosion was not as binary as we think of it in culture today. Besides women like Bently, there was an explosion of lesbian women in blues music. Women like Bessie Jackson (post HERE) and Ma Rainey were singing about other women with the same passion that is attributed to heterosexual blues music.
JUGGS (post HERE) was one of the places to be during the 1930s and was a gay bar that catered prodominately to underrepresented individuals on the East Coast.
Drag culture really blew up in the 20th century but the shift in calling things drag changed drastically in the century before it. If you compared western culture dress/etiquette of the 1700s to mid-1800s to the dress of the early 1900s, everyone expressed themselves in some form of drag in the 1700s. British “Molly Houses” (often credited as the first gay/drag bars, page HERE) organized in the late 1800s.
Women cross-dressing became political voice and expression in France, England, Canada and the US at the turn of the 1900s. Some of these women were queer* but dress was not all about sexuality. Just like today, pants did not make you queer* and a dress did not make you heterosexual. Did you know women could be arrested and fined for dressing in slacks? Seriously.
I am currently not near my personal library but I can supply more information on the Halloween Balls and Masquerade Balls at a later time. These were dances in the early 1900s held by (usually) wealthy members of society who identified as heterosexual and would create elaborate drag balls and events for wild nights of partying and spirits.
Drag culture in African American culture is discussed quite candidly in the documentary film PARIS IS BURNING (Vimeo link HERE).
Also, one of the popular stories about the Stonewall Riots is that it was a drag queen of color who threw the first punch on the night the patrons fought against the raiders. (The night of the Riots is highly argued.)
You cannot forget the importance of Ru Paul on performance and drag history. That is a serious stamp on culture.
I will supply what I can. If you’d like to talk more one-on-one, come off anon and I won’t publish anything we share.
Keep On, Keeping On!
QBITs: And a history of male performers playing feamle roles in the theatre since about the 13th C (church wouldn’t allow females on stage). Also true of theatre in Japan and China historically. Not drag per se, but early beginnings of the artform, maybe.
Rebecca of KNOWhomo: Agreed - completely! Drag is complicated pre-20th century because it was not considered a break against society. It was standard. It was polite. It was common, educated culture. You are spot on! It becomes complicated when we are asked to break down what drag is.
For those who don’t, I HIGHLY recommend following QBits. You will not be disappointed. The moderator is a vast source of insight and information.
LGBTQ* People You Should Know
GLADYS BENTLEY (picture NY, circa 1930s)
Bentley flirted with double entendres in her music and dabbled in double dress in her day to day life. Her blues music and sultry lyrics dared anyone to question their true meaning while she flirted with female patrons as she sang. She frequented speakeasies like The Clam House in Harlem and caused a bit of a stir when she married her white New Jersey girlfriend in a civil wedding ceremony.
Much of Bentley’s life would later be subject to the fear/hate of a McCarthy run system in the late 1940s’/1950s.