Recent Comments

    During the early decades of the 20th century, when the music business was almost entirely controlled by white men, it billwas black women who created the greatest opportunities to express an LGBT sensibility. At a time that socially and legally barred any openness, they increasingly refused to be stereotyped, “traditional” paragons of femininity. Even while maintaining and projecting their explicit female identities, they helped to create a new, uniquely American music: the blues.

    Women like “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, Gladys Bentley and others were keenly aware of their gender identity and their sexual orientation, which they expressed in both their public performance and their private lives. Living and working in a world on the fringes of the mainstream white American culture, unconcerned about middle-class “values” and “respectability,” they had the freedom to explore their sexuality and express their feelings about it in song.

    “Ma” Rainey, born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886, is considered to be the first great blues singer, the “Mother of the Blues.” In 1904, after she married popular performer William “Pa” Rainey, she christened herself with the name “Ma,” a title that she kept for the rest of her career. Her 1928 recording of “Prove It On Me Blues”–a song she wrote herself–is one of the earliest to feature lesbian sexuality:

    rainbow rainbow2

    “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,

    They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.

    Wear my clothes just like a fan,

    Talk to the gals just like any old man.”

    Rainey sang about homosexuality again in “Sissy Blues,” where she describes seeing her male lover in the arms of another man: “My man’s got a sissy, his name is Miss Kate.”

    Once “Ma” Rainey’s protégé, “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith (1894–1937) also sang about sexuality and gender roles that were quite different from those of mainstream America. Far ahead of her time, in “The Boy in the Boat”–the phrase a euphemism for the clitoris and the clitoral hood–she explained:

    “When you see two women walking hand in hand.

    Just look ‘em over and try to understand.

    They’ll go to these parties, have their lights down low.

    Only those parties where women can go.

    You think I’m lying, just ask Tack Anne.

    Took many a broad from many a man.”

    This song and others like it must have shocked their original audiences because Smith is accepting and “normalizing” homosexuality, bringing it into the open. This was all in material written and sung at least thirty years before the struggles for women’s and LGBT equality began in earnest.

    Gladys Bentley (1907–1960), the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs,” achieved stardom during the Harlem Renaissance. Dressed in her trademark white tuxedo or top hat and tails, she sang about “bulldaggers” and flaunted her sexuality by openly flirting with women in the audience. Her speciality was changing the lyrics of popular songs to make them sexually explicit, combining, for example, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Alice Blue Gown” into a vivid paean to anal intercourse. Often the subject of gossip columnists, her marriage to a white woman, not recognized by any government, was widely publicized.

    In the early 1930s, Bentley was the featured entertainer at Harlem’s Ubangi Club. She was supported by a chorus of men in drag. By the end of the decade, however, shows featuring cross-dressing, banned in many cities, had become very much a thing of the past. She moved to California, where as “America’s Greatest Sepia Piano Artist,” she maintained some success. She was especially popular during World War II with lesbian women; they came to see her at the San Bernardino Club and Joquin’s El Rancho in Los Angeles, and at Mona’s in San Francisco.

    Bentley was revolutionary not only in her music, but also in the way she presented her gender identification. “Differing from the traditional male impersonator,” wrote James Wilson, “Gladys Bentley did not try to ‘pass’ as a man, nor did she playfully try to deceive her audience into believing she was biologically male. Instead, she exerted a ‘black female masculinity’ that troubled the distinctions between black and white and masculine and feminine.”

    Only a handful of the many hundreds of blues songs that these women and others sang or recorded had obviously lesbian or gay references, but even a few certainly were more than appeared anywhere else in American culture during the same period. That there were any at all, given the times, is simply extraordinary. Never making a secret of their sexual selves, these groundbreaking women succeeded against all odds.

    Knowingly or not, the women linked musical expression to an expression of queer identity, even as they challenged established roles for women with their appearance, style, and choice of material. They also influenced other performers of their eras and, in some cases, singers and musicians for generations to come. So great were their artistic achievements that we still may listen to them, both for enjoyment and inspiration, as their powers remain undiminished. In all ways, they truly were unforgettable, important pioneers.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.