The Gay Harlem Renaissance

Quiet as it's kept, a number of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance fell along the LGBT rainbow spectrum.


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Nugent, known as the “perfumed orchid of the New Negro Movement,” didn’t hide his sexuality either in life or in print. He contributed the blatantly homoerotic short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” to the black literary journal Fire!! in 1926. Speaking about the LGBT presence in Harlem, Nugent noted, “You did what you wanted to. Nobody was in the closet. There wasn’t any closet.”

Everybody who was anybody — gay and straight, black and white, uptown and downtown — knew about the infamous homosexual haunt the Clam House on 133rd Street. Bawdy blues singer Gladys Bentley presided over the raucous fun, all 250 pounds of her cross-dressed in tux and top hat.

A’Lelia Walker, the Joy Goddess of the Harlem Renaissance and daughter of Madam C.J., was especially fond of homosexuals, notes award-winning author David Levering Lewis in his book When Harlem Was in Vogue. Anyone who voiced disapproval risked being uninvited from her lavish and legendary parties.

But gayest of all: the Hamilton Lodge drag ball held every year on 155th Street. Several thousand came to gawk at the cross-dressing extravaganza as hundreds of mainly working-class young men showed up in over-the-top drag.

An Invisible Life?

Despite this kind of freedom and pageantry, homosexuality wasn’t universally accepted. Harlem’s most powerful minister, Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church until 1937, campaigned against what he saw as the growing scourge of sexual perversion and moral degeneracy. And the annual Hamilton Lodge event was openly referred to as the “parade of the pansies,” “dance of the fairies” and “faggots’ ball.”

Against this complicated landscape, some claim that scholars of the New Negro Movement have erased the LGBT history of the Renaissance in biographies and textbooks. In Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, author Schwarz explains that historians either deliberately or inadvertently sidelined the link between the Harlem Renaissance and homosexuality.

In a 2001 essay ” ‘Outing’ Alain L. Locke,” biographer Leonard Harris accused some scholars of obscuring Locke’s gay life, leading to the false idea that “Locke’s sexuality was irrelevant to his intellectual and personal history.” Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar, is often called the father of the Harlem Renaissance. And when the groundbreaking 1989 film Looking for Langston was released to critical acclaim, the Langston Hughes estate did its best to shut it down. Directed by Isaac Julien, the lyrical film is a gay love letter to Hughes and the Renaissance.