When Passing debuts on Netflix on Nov. 10, the film—starring Oscar nominee Ruth Negga (Loving) and Tessa Thompson—will draw new attention to Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel on which it is based. The story and its title most obviously raise questions about race in American society, with the tale of two light-skinned Black women, childhood friends Irene and Clare, navigating the phenomenon of passing as white. But Passing also shines a light on the often overlooked role of sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance.
“Clare makes Irene uncomfortable in lots of ways…Might she be attracted to Clare herself?” TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote after the movie’s premiere at Sundance this year. “The dance these two perform with one another is entrancing and heady and a little mysterious—its steps not easily parsed but always captivating.”
Questions about attraction between the protagonists in this novel have made it not only one of the milestone works to come out of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s, but also a milestone work in LGBTQ+ history. Scholars of this period point out that acknowledging the queer culture and nightlife of the Harlem Renaissance is essential in order to paint a full picture of the time—and also to show that there was a thriving LGBTQ+ scene in New York City that long predated the 1969 Stonewall uprising, even though that moment is often credited with ushering in the modern LGBTQ+ movement. For LGBTQ+ History Month and Monday’s National Coming Out Day, the above video looks back at the overlooked queer artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Literary scholars consider Nella Larsen, the first Black female Guggenheim fellowship recipient, one of the “queer figures” of the Harlem Renaissance, says Octavio R. González, an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Wellesley College and an expert on the Harlem Renaissance. González describes Passing as a novel that exhibits “same-sex desire between the two female protagonists.”
The rising influence of LGBTQ+ social life in the 1920s came about just as Harlem became the nation’s largest Black urban neighborhood. The Great Migration of the early 20th century—the movement of Black people from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities for job opportunities—enabled Harlem to become a center for Black cultural life and fostered “a sense of new possibilities,” as González puts it. “Sexuality became a form of freedom…expressing sexuality became a form of emancipation.”
In Harlem and beyond, the 1920s saw a period of relaxed social mores as people rebelled against Prohibition-era restrictions. The speakeasy culture paved the way for LGBTQ+ nightlife and drag balls—or what Langston Hughes called “Spectacles in Color,” according to James Wilson, author of Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance and a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College. As he described the queer nightlife scene back then to TIME, “The Harlem balls, or the ‘fairy balls,’ as they were oftentimes called, attracted people from all over the country to converge on the Renaissance Casino, and they would cross-dress… There were contests. There were awards given for the most lavish gowns and costumes. They became celebrity events. These were in the gossip columns.”
The social scene stretched far beyond those parties, to spaces from cabarets to private rent parties, at which a person who needed help covering rent would ask guests to kick in whatever money they could spare to help the cause. Lesbian blues singer Gladys Bentley got her start at rent parties. She appeared at the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, but she was also often seen decked out in a white tuxedo singing raunchy songs at gay speakeasies like Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, backed up by drag performers. Langston Hughes described Bentley in his 1945 autobiography as “an amazing exhibition of musical energy.”
It also stretched into the writing that would give the Harlem Renaissance its fame: Wallace Thurman co-founded a magazine called Fire!! that boasted contributors such as Langston Hughes (whose sexuality has generated a lot of speculation over the years). One of the few openly gay Black writers of the period, Richard Bruce Nugent, published the short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” considered a seminal work of gay Harlem for depicting bisexuality and a 19-year-old male artist sexually involved with another man. Many other figures of the Harlem literati have since seen their work adopted as part of a queer canon. Alain Locke edited The New Negro, a 1925 anthology of poetry, fiction and essays credited with ushering in the Harlem Renaissance. Claude McKay wrote Home to Harlem, which has been hailed as “the first commercially successful novel by a Black Writer.” And poet Countee Cullen wrote several volumes of poetry and once taught James Baldwin in high school. (The New York Public Library branch named after him in Harlem is the first library in the system to be named after a Black person.)
The Black political leaders of the 1920s and 1930s hoped that the flourishing cultural scene during the Harlem Renaissance could work to counter stereotypes about Black people and “facilitate the Negro’s demand for civil rights and for social and economic equality,” as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote in TIME in 1994.
But the Harlem Renaissance ended when the Great Depression dried up the usual channels for patronage. The Roaring Twenties were followed by a conservative political culture characterized by Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare, during which there was a fear within the Black intelligentsia that talking openly about queerness could jeopardize their civil rights agendas. Writing that depicted Gay Harlem went out of print as well.
The richness of that culture still remained, waiting to be rediscovered—a process that began after the 1960s and ‘70s gay rights movement was followed by the loss of life during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s, which raised awareness of the need to preserve gay history. Since LGBTQ+ studies became a discipline at the college level in the 1990s, there have been more scholars looking back to the Harlem Renaissance for roots of drag ball culture and to fill in the gaps of LGBTQ+ history and culture.
“Only now are we looking back to find inspiration in those pages and in those moments in history,” says González. “Teaching this history will help us diversify the true rainbow of queerness.”
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