Published on June 19th, 2012 | by Wild Gender0
In Celebration of Juneteenth: Tribute to Drag King Gladys Bentley
HARLEM, N.Y. — Gladys Bentley, an icon of fabulousness from the speakeasy age of ‘20s and ‘30s Harlem, rose to fame as a vaudevillian songstress, defying gender norms with delight. In an annual celebration of Juneteenth, Bentley lives on in her “Juneteenth Jamboree,” song, which has carried her legacy far beyond the queer clubs.
A crooner at heart, Bentley worked her way through the nightclub ranks of Harlem and eventually was the headliner for “The Clam House,” a well known lesbian hangout. Bentley, who was once quoted as saying, “even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me,” had found her place.
According to author Don Davis at the Bilerico Project, Her ability to write and perform some of the bawdiest lyrics ever while “working the room” kept the Clam House packed.
As a result of her success at the Clam House, Harlem’s uber popular, Ubangi Club scouted Bentley and offered her a job with an entire chorus line of “pansies” —femme cis gay men.
“The combination of the effeminate male chorus line and the female butch headliner forming a sort of gender-bending fugue that that came together in elaborate stage shows produced by the likes of Leonard Harper,” writes Davis.
In another well-known Bentley moment, she married her girlfriend in a show that reportedly covered in the society pages of the New York papers. Bentley also reports that there were two marriages to men, in later years, both ending in divorce.
Bentley’s time in Harlem came to an end as economics of the Depression era worsened. In 1937, less than five years after she had moved into a Park Avenue Apartment, she moved in with her mother in Los Angeles.
Several decades thereafter, as retrospective on her own life, Bentley wrote a 1952 article in Ebony Magazine called “I Am A Woman Again.” In it, she reflects on her gender identity, describing how her parents tried to “fix” her gender by making her dress in something other than her brothers’ suits. She discusses an attraction to her teacher that she did not understand, and what she herself portrays as “extreme social maladjustment”.
“Even then there was a feeling that you could cure “Teh Gay”, and as a child Bentley’s mother “began to take me from doctor to doctor,” an effort to which Bentley herself would eventually return,” writes Davis.
In 1960, after seeking help from doctors following a sexual and gender identity crisis, and was prescribed estrogen as treatment, Bentley died of influenza.