It’s fun to think of ourselves as the most progressive generation. The most unconventional. The most authentic. The most original. But history teaches us differently, if we only bother to look. You think you’re a badass genderqueer in 2013? Yeah, meet the out lesbians, drag kings and cross-dressing ladies of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Almost 100 years ago they were out of the closet and singing about it. Macklemore ain’t got nothing on Ma Rainey crooning “I went out last night with a crowd of my friends/It must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men/Wear my clothes just like a fan/Talk to the gals just like any old man” (“Prove It On Me Blues”).
Also, damn, if they didn’t look fine. It’s called a Renaissance for a reason. I mean, really, next time you go to pride and see the sea of women in cargo shorts and skinny jeans, think back to this dapper display. Sometimes they really don’t make them like they used to.
A blues singer in the Harlem Renaissance known for wearing tuxedos and top hats (see above). She headlined gay clubs and lesbian bars, among other venues. She even married her white female lover in Atlantic City. Later during the MCarthy Era she denounced her lesbianism because, you know, fucking McCarthy.
A blues and jazz singers, Ethel was one of the first black entertainer to move successfully from the black vaudeville and nightclub circuits to what was called “the white time” – a traditional vaudeville circuit played before white audiences.
A cabaret singer, dancer and comic, Florence was known as “The Queen of Happiness.” She died at the height of her career at age 32 from an infection from tuberculosis and more than 10,000 people visited the funeral home to pay their respects. Also, she may or may not have invented steampunk.
Take that, Millennials.