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A Legacy of Black: A Look into Our Lesbian Past

Getty Images/Robert Alexander

Another Black History Month has come to an end, a month where we emphasize and celebrate African American history and culture. It’s more than just learning about the black pioneers before us, like Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, and so many others. It’s become a month of remembrance and gratitude as we strive to honor their legacies and contributions to Black History and America. It’s the recognition they rightfully deserve, even after February is over. As we enter into Women’s History Month, I want to shine the spotlight on three Black lesbian women who were trailblazers of their time and have continued to have an impact on present-day women, feminism, and the LGBTQ community.

We begin our journey into our lesbian past by first honoring the unapologetically bold blues performer Gladys Bentley. She was an entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance period and quickly gained a following not only because of her loud, intense vocal style and provocative song lyrics but also because of her boundary-pushing attire during her performances. She got her start performing at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, a well-known gay speakeasy, after the establishment needed a male pianist. It was here that she began performing in full men’s clothing, wearing a tuxedo with long white dress shirts, black bow ties and her short hair slicked back under her signature top hat. By refining her act at Harry’s, she grew in success and popularity within Harlem.

Photo Credit: Gladys Bentley, Getty Images/ Frank Driggs

Her career skyrocketed, with crowds both intrigued and perplexed by her masculine appearance and her scandalous songs. In her performances, however, her intention was never to be a drag king or to assume the identity of a man. Instead, she presented herself as an unapologetically masculine, black lesbian who was comfortable wearing men’s clothes.

She was one of the first women performers to display this form of masculinity, sparking a conversation of what female masculinity looked like in the 20s and 30s. With lyrics laced with innuendos and double-entendres, you could confirm her interest in women and disinterest in men. She called out men in her songs and sang risqué and bawdy lyrics about relationships with female lovers. At her shows, she even openly flirted with ladies in the audience. As brash as she may have come off by being so open about her lesbianism and masculinity on stage, people couldn’t help being captivated by her performances.

Gladys went on to tour multiple big cities across the U.S. during her career and also gained recognition and favor from celebrities. Her performances during the 20s and 30s paved a path for women to showcase female masculinity through attire, demeanor, and words. She blurred the lines of masculinity and femininity during a time that was set in gender norms for women and men. With her performances, she ignited a movement for lesbianism, gave us early origins of butch lesbianism, and showed us that masculinity (and femininity) is not linear in the early 20th century.

Photo Credit: Stormé DeLarverie/ The New York Times

Our next pioneer is Stormé DeLarverie, a butch lesbian entertainer and gay rights activist during the Civil Rights Movement-era United States. She holds deeper importance in lesbian and LBGTQ history due to her involvement in the Stonewall uprising of 1969, which is how she got her name as “the gay community’s Rosa Parks”.

Stormé was identified by bystanders and self-confirmed to be the woman who ignited the spark to action from the crowd after she got into a scuffle with the police. The rebellion played a major factor in the beginnings of the gay liberation movement of the late 60s and the origin of the modern LBGTQ civil rights movement. Without her, the movement as we know it could’ve looked much differently.

Stormé’s contribution to history doesn’t end with the Stonewall rebellion. Throughout her life, she was active in the gay civil rights movement and the LGBTQ community of New York. Like Gladys, she was an entertainer, specifically a drag king in the Jewel Revue. However, she also worked as a bouncer at several lesbian nightclubs and as a volunteer community patrol worker. She also served in Stonewall’s Veterans’ Association, a group focused on assisting and advocating for LGBT individuals and preserving LGBT history.

Besides acting as an advocate and guardian within the community, Stormé had an androgynous presence and would sometimes walk around in New York in her drag king suits. The trend caught on with other lesbians beginning to wear men’s clothing as streetwear in the 60s. Without even realizing it, she helped further build upon the foundation Gladys started in the 20s and 30s by wearing men’s clothes during her performances. Both women can be referenced as influencers of gender non-conforming fashion decades before unisex styles were adopted.

As we continue moving through the years, our last lesbian trailblazer is poet, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde. Widely known for her works, she was considered to be a technical master of words and emotional expression. Many of her works graphically depict her anger and frustrations of seeing a life filled with racial, social, and civil injustices.

During the 70s and 80s, Audre brought awareness to the importance of intersectionality between racial, ethnic and gender through her work and activism. She was credited in the 80s for influencing the black movement in Berlin during her time as a visiting professor. Outside of her professorship, she mentored women and encouraged them to fight systemic oppression through language using their voices.

These same ideals can be found in her short prose essay from Sister Outsider, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. Many of her prose pieces spoke to the injustices Audre and other women were experiencing during this period. She recognized and questioned a patriarchal system encompassed with racism while also challenging women to no longer remain silent while these injustices continued taking place.

All of these women weren’t afraid of being authentically themselves during a period where freedom in race, sexuality, and gender wasn’t present. They understood the challenges of being lesbian and black and chose to use their talents to influence and uplift women and question the status quo. We should honor these women every day, for being pioneers and inspiring so many women after them. Without them, feminism, the LGBTQ movement, and the civil rights movement would have looked completely different.

Enjoyed this article? Take a look at our LGBTQ Relationship Column in She's SINGLE Magazine


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