Queer African American Women and the History of Marriage
This photo and headline accompanied an article from the October 15, 1970 issue of Jet magazine. They reveal that long before the recent struggle for marriage equality began, African American women who love women have engaged with the institution of marriage and have fought to make it their own.
Edna Knowles, on the left, and Peaches Stevens were wed in Liz’s Mark III Lounge, a gay bar on the South Side of Chicago, “before a host of friends and well wishers.” The article ended by noting, “although the duo has a type of ‘marriage license’ in their possession, the state’s official marriage license bureau reported it had no record of their license.” This ending serves to remind Jet readers that Knowles and Stevens’ union was not legitimate in the eyes of the state, as does the use of quotes around the word “married” in the headline.
However, decades prior to this bold public display of queer affection, African American female couples in New York strategized alternative ways to obtain marriage licenses in the 1920s and 30s:
“Marriage ceremonies were held with large wedding parties which included several bridesmaids, attendants, and other wedding party members. Actual marriage licenses were obtained by either masculinizing the first name, or having a gay male surrogate obtain the license for the marrying couple. These marriage licenses were placed on file with the New York City Marriage Bureau.” - Luvenia Pinson, “The Black Lesbian: Times Past-Time Present,” Womanews, May 1980 p. 8.
Also during the 1930s, popular performer Gladys Bentley was making a living singing bawdy tunes and playing piano late into the night at various clubs all over New York, including one named after her.
Bentley married her white girlfriend in Atlantic City in a ceremony to which she invited friends in the entertainment industry:
“Columnist Louis Sobol remembered Bentley coming over to his table one night and whispering, ‘I’m getting married tomorrow and you’re invited.’ When Sobol asked who the lucky man was to be, she giggled and replied, ‘Man? Why boy you’re crazy. I’m marryin’ ——’ and she named another woman singer.” - Eric Garber, “Gladys Bentley: The Bulldagger Who Sang the Blues,” Out/Look, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1988, pp. 52-61.
These examples show some of the various ways queer African American women have created public rituals to express their relationships and have therefore insisted on their rights to full citizenship, many decades prior to the current struggle for marriage equality.