The (Very Gay) Harlem Renaissance
Although the 1969 Stonewall uprising is often thought of as the galvanizing point in LGBTQ+ history, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s was a time of queer liberation as well as Black liberation. The era not only allowed African American artists—from painters and authors to dancers and musicians—to experiment artistically, but also saw those artists explore gender, sex, and sexuality.
A Crossroads of Artistic, Cultural, and Sexual Energies
The rising influence of LGBTQ+ social life in the 1920s came just as Harlem became the nation’s largest Black urban neighborhood. Black and white, gay and straight—all mingled in Harlem’s speakeasies. The unifier was explicit sexuality, not sexual orientation. The police and courts enforced anti-vice laws in other parts of the city but had little interest in the behavior of the Black residents of Harlem.
Performers were able to challenge conventions of male and female dress and behavior and some openly flaunted gender and sexuality constraints. Patrons flocked to enjoy the exoticism, freedom of relaxed mores, and opportunities for varied sexual experiences. Harlem was the only place in New York where Black gay men could gather publicly. And those men, says historian George Chauncey, “turned Harlem into a homosexual mecca.”
Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge began hosting drag balls in 1869. By the 1920s, the balls had become extravaganzas. Then, as now, drag events attracted both queer and straight patrons.
There were contests, and awards were given for the most extravagant gowns and costumes. In 1926, a crowd of some 1,500 packed the Renaissance Casino in Harlem for the 58th masquerade and civil ball of Hamilton Lodge. Nearly half of those attending, reported the New York Age, appeared to be “men of the class generally known as ‘fairies,’ and many Bohemians from the Greenwich Village section who...in their gorgeous evening gowns, wigs and powdered faces were hard to distinguish from many of the women.”
Drag balls eventually evolved into house balls. In the early 1970s, the world of drag pageantry evolved into competitions that included “vogue” battles. These events can all trace their origins back to 1800s Harlem.
Few well-known figures from this era were open about their sexual orientation. Many maintained heterosexual personas but are believed to have had same-sex relationships, while others were known to be gay but only among their fellow artists. Few were truly out. Scholars and biographers have drawn conclusions by examining personal correspondence, unpublished writings, and observations by contemporaries.
Philosopher Alain Locke and poet Countee Cullen were two of the most prominent Black queer writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke defined the aesthetic and goals of the Harlem Renaissance with his 1925 book The New Negro, a collection of short fiction, poetry, and essays from young Black writers. Countee Cullen’s 1925 poetry collection Color helped establish his reputation as a leading Black poet of the new generation.
Richard Bruce Nugent, one of the few openly gay Black writers of the period, published “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” a short story which is considered the first publication by an African American to depict gay acts. His frankness and willingness to document his experiences has made him an invaluable source of information on gay life during the Harlem Renaissance.
The best-known leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, is believed to have been gay, although he was very private. Arnold Rampersad, author of The Life of Langston Hughes, has said "Although Hughes remained sexually closeted to the end of his life, the widespread perception in Harlem, where he lived, was that he was gay.”
Entertainers tended to be more open. While blues singers Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter never publicly acknowledged their lesbian or bisexual identities, they were relatively open with their fellow performers. One of the more flamboyant entertainers, Gladys Bentley, was the star at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House in the 1920s and the Ubangi Club in the early 1930s. She became famous for performing in men’s clothing, notably a white tuxedo and top hat. She often sang raunchy songs about her female lovers and flirted with women in the audience.
Jimmie Daniels, who performed at the Hot-Cha nightclub, built a devoted following of gay fans with his sophisticated renditions of jazz standards and showtunes. One gay club host was the female impersonator “Gloria Swanson,” who sang and danced wearing velvet-trimmed evening gowns and was so convincing that some patrons never realized he was a man.
The Harlem Renaissance created a spirit of self-expression and pride that set a path to LGBTQ+ activism. Only the depression and growing conservatism (then McCarthyism and the lavender scare) closeted this history. Even Gladys Bentley surrendered, trading her tux for a dress, and declaring herself “cured” by female hormones. Fortunately, society has changed and this fascinating part of LGBTQ+ history is now coming to light. ▼
Nancy (Day) Sakaduski is an award-winning writer and editor who owns Cat & Mouse Press in Lewes, Delaware.
Photo credits: Richard Bruce Nugent: Carl Van Vechten Papers Relating to African American Arts and Letters. James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, ©Van Vechten Trust.
Langston Hughes: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress)
Want to Read More?
Arpita Aneja, “The History You Didn’t Learn: The (Gay) Harlem Renaissance,” Time.com, October 11, 2021.
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940.
Steven W. Lewis, “The Harlem Renaissance in Black Queer History.” Smithsonian, May 28, 2022.
Thaddeus Morgan, "How 19th-Century Drag Balls Evolved into House Balls, Birthplace of Voguing." History Channel (online), June 28, 2021.
Sarah Pruitt, "How Gay Culture Blossomed During the Roaring Twenties," History Channel (online), Updated: June 12, 2019; Original: June 10, 2019
A.B. Christa Schwarz, Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press, 2003.
Oliver Stabbe, "Queens and queers: The rise of drag ball culture in the 1920s." O Say Can You See, Stories from the Museum, National Museum of American History, April 11, 2016.
Deborah Treisman. “Discovering an Unpublished Story by Langston Hughes,” The New Yorker, May 30, 2016.
Olivia B. Waxman, “The Overlooked LGBTQ+ History of the Harlem Renaissance,” Time.com, October 11, 2021.
James Wilson, Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance.