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What links an African American lesbian singer from the 50s and St Valentine?

What links an African American lesbian singer from the 50s and St Valentine?

Gladys Bentley and St Valentine.

Valentine’s Day is for lovers — including LGBTIs.

‘The love that dare not speak its name’ – a phrase coined by Lord Alfred Douglas and used against his lover, Oscar Wilde, in his gross indecency trial in 1895 – is finally and forever out of the closet.

In the US, last June’s historic Supreme Court ruling – Obergefell v Hodge – that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states saw to that.

But homophobia has never stopped us entirely from publicly revealing our affection for one another.

For example, during the repressive 1950s McCarthy era, Gladys Bentley (1907 to 1960) – a talented pianist and blues singer, and one of the most notorious and successful African American lesbians in the US during the Harlem Renaissance – sang raunchy and salacious lyrics to popular tunes.

Bentley not only openly sang about heterosexual and homosexual sex but she also lived and celebrated openly her sexual orientation as an out lesbian.

Known to perform in her infamous white tuxedo and top hat, Bentley by today’s terms would be considered a gender-fluid lesbian, if not more. Back then, she was just know by the by lesbian parlance as a ‘butch’.

As troubling as that was for society, especially given her public lesbianism, Bentley’s most disturbing behavior was her active participation in this country’s racial and gender obsession: interracial marriage.

Had her ‘woman-friend’ been African American or another woman of color their coupling would have clearly been subjected to condemnation and jeering, but it would not have conjured up the wrath, fear and disgust that interracial marriage does.

Anti-miscegenation laws operated in all 50 states until 1967 when the US Supreme court ruled in the historic case, Loving v Virginia, they were unconstitutional. And, of course, same-sex marriage was illegal. Bentley single-handedly performed a coup d’état against the institution of marriage and the prohibition against miscegenation: she married her white girlfriend in a civil wedding ceremony.

The precedent for same-sex marriage was set by another African American woman named Mildred Loving (1942-2008).

Loving gained notoriety when the US Supreme Court decided in her favor. Married to a white man, she and her husband were indicted by a Virginia grand jury in October 1958 for violating the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. But the laws of Virginia didn’t stop their love for each other.

When asked by the prosecuting attorney ‘What is “the love that dare not speak its name?”’ Wilde stated the following:

‘It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it… the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’

History, however, has shown us that people will fight for love’s integrity, even when it is against popular opinion, violating both state and federal laws, and costing them their lives.

Case in point: the beheading of St Valentine in Rome in 270 AD.

When Emperor Claudius II issued an edict abolishing marriage because married men hated to leave their families for battle, Valentine, known then as the ‘friend to lovers,’ secretly joined them in holy matrimony. While awaiting his execution, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and in his farewell message to his lover, he penned ‘From your Valentine!’

May the loving spirit of Mildred and Oscar Wilde and the justice acts of St Valentine and Obergefell v. Hodge be with us on 14 February and every day.

Happy Valentine’s Day!