Meet 4 historic icons who made the Harlem Renaissance ‘as gay as it was black’

Meet 4 historic icons who made the Harlem Renaissance ‘as gay as it was black’
A 1932 tabloid's expose of a drag ball in Harlem. Photo: via Harlem World

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s was a creative flowering of African American art, literature and activism.

It was partly the result of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans moved from the South to northern cities to leave Jim Crow and seek economic opportunity. Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood was the most populated of the emerging black neighborhoods of this time.

What is less known is that it was also an important time black LGBT history. After listing the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that it “was surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of these things.”

Being “in the life” meant having access to a cultural network that was really, really gay. “You did what you wanted to,” openly gay writer and painter Bruce Nugent said. “Nobody was in the closet. There wasn’t any closet.”

Of course, many important figures from this time were deeply closeted – after they got home from a speakeasy or a nightclub.

Major American and European cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had gay communities that were much more open than they would be in the coming decades, and, in that sense, Harlem was the black counterpart to the predominantly white gay neighborhood of Greenwich Village.

Here are a few of the LGBT people integral to the Harlem Renaissance.

1. Gladys Bentley

The blues singer Gladys Bentley headlined at the Clam House, a famous gay speakeasy (a bar that served alcohol during Prohibition).

A talented singer and piano player who performed in a white tuxedo and a top hat, Bentley was what Langston Hughes called “an amazing exhibition of musical energy.”

Bentley later performed at the Ubangi Club in Harlem with a “pansy chorus line” of dancers described as drag queens or feminine gay men, depending on the source.

Writer Eric Garber connected her to a fictionalized version of the Clam House that appeared in a novel:

A glimpse into a speakeasy, based in part on the Clam House, is provided in Blair Niles’ 1931 gay novel Strange Brother. The Lobster Pot is a smoky room in Harlem, simply furnished with a couple of tables, a piano, and a kitchen, where white heterosexual journalist June Westwood, Strange Brother’s female protagonist, is first introduced to Manhattan’s gay subculture. The Lobster Pot features a predominantly gay male clientele and an openly lesbian entertainer named Sybil. “What rhythm!” June comments to her companions. “And the way she’s dressed!” Westbrook finds the atmosphere intoxicating, but abruptly ends her visit when she steps outside and witnesses the entrapment of an effeminate black gay man by the police.

The real Gladys Bentley married a white woman in New Jersey (not a legally recognized marriage, of course), but later went back into the closet and claimed to marry a man who later confessed he was never married to Bentley.

Bruce Nugent

Yale University Library

Called the “perfumed orchid of the New Negro Movement” (what the Harlem Renaissance was called as it was happening), Nugent was aggressively out.

One of his better known stories, “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” was about a young, black, gay poet who moved to New York City. It appeared in the only issue of Fire!! – a gay arts periodical produced his circle of friends – ever published.

He married a woman in 1952 who died in 1969. As one of the last living artists of the Harlem Renaissance, he was interviewed in the 1984 documentary Before Stonewall.

Alain Leroy Locke

Photograph from 1946 Wikipedia/Alfred Eisenstaedt

Sometimes called the “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, philosopher and professor Alain Locke became the first African American Rhodes Scholar in 1907.

In 1925 – just after he lost his professorship at Harvard University for his efforts to get paid the same as white faculty members – he edited The New Negro: An Interpretation, an anthology of writing that was a major success. He contributed several essays to the book that included literary works as well as political essays.

Central to his philosophy was the idea of the “new negro,” which he contrasted to the “old negro,” “a creature of moral debate and historical controversy.”

“To all of this the New Negro is keenly responsive as an augury of a new democracy in American culture,” Locke wrote. “He is contributing his share to the new social understanding.”

Locke also supported younger gay artists. He developed a close relationship with writer Countee Cullen, who, in 1923, wrote a letter to Locke, thanking the professor for introducing him to early gay writer Edward Carpenter: “It opened up for me soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural.”

He himself remained in the closet, referring to his sexuality as his point of “vulnerability/invulnerability.”

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936. Wikipedia

Writer Langston Hughes did not talk much in his life about his own sexuality, but rumors about him started when he was a young writer – Alain Locke and Countee Cullen wrote letters to each other about Hughes’s “seducibility” – and followed him the rest of his life.

Part of it came from his participation in the gay life of the Harlem Renaissance. He attended drag balls – yes, there were drag balls in 1920’s Harlem – and called them “spectacles of color” and the “strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem’s spectacles.” People could wear what they wanted and dance with partners of the same sex, and Hughes was particularly fond of the Harlem balls: “This dance has been going on a long time, and… is very famous among the male masqueraders of the eastern seaboard, who come from Boston and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Atlantic City to attend.”

He included gay themes in his work, like “Blessed Assurance,” a story about a father’s anger toward his feminine and gay son. “Seven People Dancing” is about Marcel, a “fairy” who hosted rent parties in Harlem (rent parties were private events that people hosted in their apartments and charged an entrance fee, to pay the rent).

And “Cafe 3 a.m.” is a poem about anti-gay police harassment:

Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
spotting fairies.
some folks say.

But God, Nature,
or somebody
made them that way.

Police lady or Lesbian
over there?

Hughes was a central figure in the interwar period in Harlem, and in 1926 he wrote something of a manifesto for the movement in The Nation: “The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter.”

Well after the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes wrote “A Dream Deferred,” which has become one of the best-known poems in American literature.

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