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As Queer As It Was Black: The Harlem Renaissance's LGBTQ+ Figures

It’s History Wednesday! This week, we’re going to explore the Harlem Renaissance and some of the Black LGBTQ+ individuals who helped make it happen.

Harlem at the turn of the 20th century was undergoing a transformation, as more and more white middle class families left the city to live in the growing suburbs. This meant areas like Harlem had plenty of new spaces to offer the many Black families and individuals from the rural South who had moved North in search of opportunity. By the 1920s, Harlem was the cultural epicenter of Black and pan-African communities - including the LGBTQ+ community in New York City and beyond.

Queer people could find themselves in Harlem’s jazz clubs, cabarets, and nightclubs, where performers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gladys Bentley often sang about their relationships with women. (Bentley especially was famous throughout the scene for performing in a men’s suit.) Writers like Nella Larson, Zora Neal Hurston, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes explored their own gay and bisexual identities as they broke literary grounds in fiction, drama, and poetry.

While not accepted per se - homosexuality was still illegal and deeply stigmatized across the country at the time - LGBTQ+ identities did find space in Harlem during the 20s and 30s, with Black LGBTQ+ artists and entertainers driving the cultural Renaissance.

To learn more about the Harlem Renaissance's queer voices, check out this article by LGBTQ Nation, "The Harlem Renaissance Was As Queer As It Was Black."

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