This month in the UK is LGBT history month and in its honour I have decided to look at a figure from each group in the acronym.
Lesbian – Gladys Bentley
Born in 1907, Bentley left home at 16 for New York where she soon ended up in Harlem. Harlem had become known as the capital of ‘The New Negro’. Here she became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a performer. Bentley was always open about her sexuality, including in her act where she would flirt with female audience members. She also had a series of girlfriends and also claimed to have married a white woman, something that would have outraged not only homophobes but also racists. It was also illegal in many areas of the US due to anti-miscegenation laws. Bentley was hugely successful on the gay circuit in Harlem but after the repeal of Prohibition, work opportunities began to dry up. She moved to South California, where she was increasingly harassed, especially for wearing men’s clothes. She managed to maintain her career somewhat and also recorded 5 discs there. However, during the McCarthy era, Bentley was forced to sanitise her act and act more outwardly ‘straight’ to avoid persecution. She also married two men, in succession as an attempt to cover up her lesbianism. She also wrote an article in Ebony magazine claiming to have been ‘cured’ in a further attempt to protect herself. Bentley went on to appear on Groucho Marx’s television show and continued to perform when she could. Near the end of her life, Bentley became devoted to The Temple of Love in Christ and even moved towards becoming ordained as a priest with the church. However she was struck by a flu epidemic in 1960 and she died of pneumonia at the age of 52.
Despite the denial of her sexuality in the later years of her life, Bentley has been a prominent figure in LGBT history, along with African American history. Her early success has been seen as positive and her later desperate attempts to survive in a deeply homophobic climate have been seen in LGBT history as indicative of the times.
Gay – Emperor Hadrian
Hadrian is mostly known in the UK for building Hadrian’s Wall but he ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years. He is also thought to be gay by some historians. Hadrian was married to a woman Sabina, however their marriage produced no children and was unhappy, perhaps further supporting that he was gay. His relationship with Antinous, a young Greek man, was well documented.
Born in 76 AD, he gained the throne of emperor via his father’s cousin, Trajan, the previous emperor in 117 AD. He travelled extensively, visiting nearly every province in his Empire which he considered a fundamental part of governing. Along with building Hadrian’s Wall, he rebuilt the Pantheon in Rome which had been destroyed twice since it had been initially built.
Hadrian is thought to have met Antinous in 123 AD and he became his favourite in 128 AD when he joined his retinue. Hadrian is known to have described Antinous as intelligent and the pair shared a love of hunting. From early sources there is evidence that their relationship was sexual as is the fact that Hadrian was attracted to men, which was accepted in Roman society. In comparison there is no evidence about Hadrian being attracted to women.
Their romance however was cut short in late 130 AD when Antinous drowned in Egypt. The exact circumstances of his death are unknown, with many conspiracies debated by contemporaries and historians. Hadrian was devastated at his death, publicly mourning him. He was deified and Hadrian ordered that a city called Antinopolis be built in his honour near where he died.
Hadrian died in 138 AD, probably from heart failure.
Bisexual – Anne Bonny
Born in Ireland around 1700, Bonny was the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer and his servant. The family moved to America shortly before Anne’s teens. Even as a teen she had a temper, allegedly stabbing a servant girl. She married James Bonny whose name she took even after she abandoned him in favour of Jack “Calico Jack” Rackham, whose activities she joined in with. It was through Rackham she met Mary Read, a fellow female pirate who also apparently became her lover. The threesome stole a ship, the Revenge. With this better ship they recruited a crew and began attacking a number of small vessels, amassing a large amount of bounty. The ship, however, was attacked by the authorities and the group were sentenced to death, despite fierce fighting from both women even when their male crew gave up easily. Both Anne and Mary had their sentences delayed due to both being pregnant.
What happened after this is not entirely clear: it seems likely that Anne was probably released thanks to her father’s efforts and forced to return home. She is thought to have married a local man and later died, not partaking in any further criminal activities.
Trans – Christine Jorgensen
Born George William Jorgensen, Jr., in the Bronx of New York in 1930 she never fitted the expectations of being male. Drafted as a soldier during World War two, Jorgensen also attended several colleges and briefly worked for Pathé before deciding to go to Sweden for gender reassignment. However on the way she visited relatives in Copenhagen where upon meeting Dr Christian Hamburger, she elected to stay in Denmark. Hamburger was an endocrinologist and specialist in rehabilitative hormonal therapy, and as well as supervising Jorgensen’s hormone therapy, he began to help her organise her first operations. In fourteen months she had surgery that removed both her testicles and penis, before returning to the US. However shortly before her return, the New York Daily News found out her story which led to mass public interest in Jorgensen; she could no longer keep her life private. Jorgensen returned looking and feeling remarkably different than she had when she had last been in the US; she had also changed her name to Christine in honour of Dr Hamburger. In an attempt to get her version out to the world rather than the lurid and fictitious claims of the press, Jorgensen sold her exclusive rights to American Weekly. Faced with limited opportunities due to the publicity, Jorgensen found herself working in the entertainment business as well as becoming an advocate and speaker supporting trans issues.
While by no means the first person to have a sex change (Jorgensen would have more operations such as vaginoplasty) Jorgensen was one of the first to survive her operations and be known to the public. In later life she continued to work with those in the medical profession who were exploring sex-reassignment change and trans issues, as well as helping trans people socially. In 1989, not long before her death that year of cancer, she said she believed that she had given the sexual revolution “a good swift kick in the pants”.