Queering Black Herstory: Janelle Monae and Gladys Bentley

When I began to research Harlem Renaissance pianist and singer Gladys Bentley a little over a year ago, I was struck by her similarity to Janelle Monae, who had then just released her second album,“ArchAndroid.” Monae’s gender-queer look–black tuxedo, black-and-white saddle shoe–is strongly reminiscent of Bentley’s trademark black-or-white tuxedo, top hat and cane. And in each case, the spectacle of a black woman performer disrupting the gender binary has prompted a flurry of speculation about her sexual orientation.

When Bentley started her career as a pianist and blues singer during the mid-1920s, performing at Harlem speakeasies and rent parties, she was open about her identity as an out lesbian. As she gained popularity, she became known as the ultimate bulldagger of the Harlem Renaissance. The iconic image of her in top hat and tails became even more famous than her actual name.

In 1950, however, Bentley published an autobiographical article, “I am Woman Again,” in Ebony magazine, revealing that she was no longer a lesbian and describing her battle with sexuality as a “personal hell.” During this time there was also a clear shift in Bentley’s gender performance: Instead of her usual men’s attire, she performed in a dress with flowers in her hair on the TV variety show You Bet Your Life.

Yet in the annals of gay history, Bentley is celebrated as a lesbian. Her shift to heterosexuality is written off as a fabrication to save her career during the McCarthy era.

Monae has thus far thwarted attempts to get a fix on her sexuality. In a 2010 Rolling Stone interview with Monae, writer Christian Hoard noted that Monae’s “outré look and penchant for pants over skirts has caused some to wonder if she’s gay.” Monae cleverly responded, “The lesbian community has tried to claim me. But I only date androids. Nothing like an android–they don’t cheat on you.”

So are Monae and Bentley classic “closet” cases? It’s true that gay celebrities have hidden their sexual identity for fear of losing fans, often at the advice of Hollywood handlers. But to assume this is always the case is to refuse performers the right to define their own sexuality. For queer black women, the categories of “lesbian” and “straight,” typically exemplified by white women, can feel especially ill-fitting.

Unlike white lesbians, black lesbians must struggle to prove their womanhood in a racist and sexist society that already denies the womanhood of straight black women. Racism has long labeled black women’s bodies as hypersexual and animalistic in order to establish the “purity” of white womanhood. To counter this, Black Nationalism went to other extreme, attempting to strip black women of any sexuality through figures such as Queen Nzinga.

Black lesbians fit neither of these models of black womanhood, so they automatically become identified with manhood or masculinity. The bulldagger or bulldyker is the prevailing image of a black lesbian, leaving little room for any other queer sexuality. Thus when Bentley and Monae dress in “masculine” clothing, they are labeled as lesbian, despite what they say they are.

I can sympathize with the need for more images of proud and out black lesbians who identify as butch, femme and everything in between. As black feminist essayist Cheryl Clarke argues, lesbianism is “an act of resistance” in our “male–supremacist, capitalist, misogynist, racist, homophobic, imperialist culture.” I understand why assigning figures such as Bentley and Monae a lesbian existence heightens pride and furthers visibility for queer communities, especially queer communities of color.

However, as much as we need black lesbian role models, there has to be space to acknowledge women like Bentley and Monae who decide to change their sexuality or not claim one at all. We have to respect their choices and allow them to shatter labels that are placed on them because of racism, sexism and homophobia.

To claim both Bentley and Monae as part of Queer History, we do not need to prove they were lesbians; instead, we can queer them through their refusal to let heteronormative identities define them. I want to celebrate Bentley’s tenacity in defining herself. In honor of Gladys Bentley, Janelle Monae and Black Herstory, I grant black women our rightful power to invent and reinvent ourselves.

Photo of Gladys Bentley (left) and Janelle Monae (right) from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Comments

  1. catron booker says:

    THANK U!!! This article speaks to so many complexities of identity that no one ever seems able to even articulate nonetheless contextualize into the history of performance. ” In honor of Gladys Bentley, Janelle Monae and Black Herstory, I grant black women our rightful power to invent and reinvent ourselves.” This MADE MY DAY!

  2. “To counter this, Black Nationalism went to other extreme, attempting to strip black women of any sexuality through figures such as Queen Nzinga.”

    What?

    This is not a true historical fact and is based on this Ms. writer’s personal opinions. Historians of African descent around the world have always represented Queen Nzinga as a warrior Queen, worthy of honor. Just read the books as a true historical record.

    You have to fight the powers that be, even the mafia media propagandist.

    • Black History Heroes I fail to see what valid point you are attempting to make. The quote “To counter this, Black Nationalism went to the other extreme, attempting to strip Black women of any sexuality through figures such as Queen Nzinga” and your analysis thereafter have me a bit confused. I do not see the point that you are attempting to make. You state that “historians of African descent represented Queen Nzinga as a warrior Queen, worthy of honor” and I’m attempting to see what part of your statement equates to showing a sexuality? Perhaps I’m missing something or perhaps the point is not there all together? And while fighting the “powers that be”, don’t become one. Excellent article. It is my hope that this won’t be the last article I read by this Ms. writer.

  3. Gina Hayes says:

    “Racism has long labeled black women’s bodies as hypersexual and animalistic in order to establish the “purity” of white womanhood.” How is it that you can just make that statement without using any reference? The manner in which you just inserted that statement makes it seem that its common knowledge. I’m 48 and I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a racist, blanket description of black women. There are a lot of people of color in the LGBT community. I think their struggles are right up there with the white LGBT community, with the bigot, racist politicians. I know of one famous, beautiful, black woman who is talented, rich and a movie star. I won’t say her name, I’ll just say she is a Queen among women. And she does just fine. Maybe she hasn’t made a public “outing” but its common knowledge and she looks pretty secure in herself and her choice of lifestyle. You were fishing for an ironic parallel and it was a real stretch !

  4. It is very, very common knowledge. Please see: http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel/ or “Birth of a Nation” or blaxploitation films or pornography for more examples. The whole black men have big penises and black women are promiscuous welfare queens with 12 kids stereotype is directly a result of the hypersexualization of black bodies. The problem may not be as explicitly portrayed in the media now as it was decades ago, but it still affects us to this day. Lesbian people are already hypersexualized (see: lesbian pornography), doubly so for black lesbians. I really do encourage you to visit http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel/ it tells you the connections between the jezebel stereotype and modern day portrayals of black females.
    (It looks as if my first comment was eaten by the internet, but I apologize if this appears twice.)

  5. Shantala Thompson says:

    Danielle and Ariel, THANK YOU, you saved me from a lot of typing.

    Gina, there was no need for me to “fish for an ironic parallel,’ this history exist, by no means was this connection a stretch.

    This article is NOT about comparing or placing hierarchy between the struggles of Black and white LGBT women. It simply takes an intersectional approach on queering Black women.

    And this “Queen among women,” that you are speaking of, I seriously doubt that you know her everyday challenges. Furthermore, pointing out one person’s experience (especially someone who you describe as “rich”) as an example for a whole group of people is a “blanket” remark.

  6. Danielle, the point I am making is that the statement from this article that I referenced, namely:

    “To counter this, Black Nationalism went to other extreme, attempting to strip black women of any sexuality through figures such as Queen Nzinga.”

    Is a HUGE representation of fact by the writer of this blog that is not substantiated by any historical record. If it is, I would appreciate reference to just one reputable source.

    None of us were alive when Queen Nzinga lived and cannot, obviously, make first-hand account of how she was treated during her times. Many of us were not even around to witness how her legacy was treated by “Black Nationalist”. What we can do is read and review historical records and use this to support the statements that we make regarding history. This is our responsibility as writers — and this is no less true for bloggers.

  7. Great article… I think the labels used to place identity on folks sexuality is crippling to all races. Straight or queer are labels that the heteronormative world uses to try and categorize people who deviate and it is unfortunate for all.

  8. I like Monae LOTS……just heard her for the 1st time on tv singing”I Want You Back” like the fantastic lil Michael Jackson and she was terrific! She’s so pretty & feminine to me despite her signature attire and I HOPE SHE IS NOT A LESBIAN……for her own good!

  9. It’s not because her clothes are ‘masculine’ that people wonder if she’s gay, it’s because a lot of her style is directly from lesbian and queer culture, and because she uses drag slang in some of her songs. And Bentley jumping back in the closet was not her “refusal to let heteronormative identities define” her, it was the a reaction to the sad fact of American prejudice. I think Ms. Shantala is far off-base in the idea that lesbian culture is white lesbian culture, and I think this article spits on queer history in the name of black pride, even though the two are much more intertwined than people realize.

    • I think that at least some people question Monae based on her fashion sensibilities. Her highly masculine inspired clothing (tuxes, bowties) puts her outside conventional gender norms, which some people leap upon as a sign of queer sexual orientation. People are always leaping upon others’ sexuality based on how they’re dressed.

      In my opinion, I don’t think that this article spits on queer history. In fact, it is only inviting more diverse introspection into a history that has mostly been written about through a white lens. The mainstream lgbt movement is also predominantly white. People of color in the media, let alone if they’re queer, tend to have less visibility (for all sorts of reasons that are probably too long to list!). Yes, there have always been queers and black queers, but most people in the mainstream just don’t get exposed to that as much as they get exposed to a very narrow interpretation of gay/les folks: white, middle-upper class, and usually “non-threatening” gender presentation.

      • I get that point, but that only considers gay/lesbian culture from an outside position–the problem with this article, I think, is that it treats gay folk with the same normative approach that she is accusing people of approaching Monae with. I also find it odd that she would equate Monae, who is doing something actively ‘queer’, with Bentley’s late return to closet. Why does she think that choice by Bentley is an instance of “thwarting” or “shattering” labels? Does she admire the founders of gay-conversion therapy and their confused patients as well? Are they “shattering” labels? I understand why Monae would say she only dates androids. And as a homo myself, I have some ambivalent feelings towards the strides being made for gay rights in America. As happy as I am about them, there is also a very class-based, normative uptake in media/politics around “gay” identity. But I still have issues with this article. Gay history in America is a history of difference, not sameness, and I feel as if she ignores that, and herself reinforces the labels she is criticizing.

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