The women of the Gay Harlem Renaissance

In honor of the National Black Theatre Festival happening this month in North Carolina, black culture and politics site The Root rounded up a bunch of gay gossip about the Harlem Renaissance, the black cultural explosion in New York and Paris in the ’20s and ’30s that apparently featured more queers than your basic history book will let on. Gay life was part of the fabric of the time, with many out gay writers, artists, popular gay bars (the dapper butch Gladys Bentley regularly performed at the Clam House) and drag balls decades before RuPaul was doing his thing. As the out gay writer of the time Bruce Nugent said, “You did what you wanted to. Nobody was in the closet. There wasn’t any closet.”

In reality it probably wasn’t the gay pride parade these sort of statements make it seem to be, but it’s important to realize that even while many queers had to keep one foot in a marriage or other arrangement, the homo life and love is part of this major cultural moment.

While the article pays most lip service to the uncelebrated gay men of the Harlem Renaissance (like Countee Cullen, who married W.E.B. DuBois’ daughter and then weeks later sailed to Paris with the best man), they do name-drop some of the lesbians and bisexual women of the day.

“Quiet as it’s kept,” the article tells us, “a number of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance fell somewhere along the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rainbow spectrum.” What’s more, in recent years a number of books and films have been devoted to uncovering these queer lives.

Let’s take a look at some of these ladies.

Angelina Weld Grimké was a jill-of-all-trades — poet, teacher, playwright, activist and journalist — who gets the honor of being the first ever black woman to have her play performed. Her poems were often lesbian in nature, especially her unpublished pieces, where she lamented how closeted she had to keep her love, in part because of the morals her father imposed upon her.

The Root notes:

The overtly same-sex longings of Renaissance playwright and poet Angelina Weld Grimké can be found in her correspondence with her friend Mamie Burrill. In a letter, she wrote, “Oh Mamie if you only knew how my heart overflows with love for you and how it yearns and pants for one more glimpse of your lovely face.” Weld signed the letter, “Your passionate lover.”

Meanwhile, poet and activist Alice Dunbar Nelson, who was born in the south as part of the first generation of free slaves, maintained a productive marriage while making herself available to women, which was perhaps not an uncommon practice among “married black women club members.”

And these gays were not without good allies, such as Madame C.J. Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker, who would ban any homophobes from her lavish parties.

Who are some other queers from history who deserve to get some love?