1925: Blueswoman Ma Rainey is arrested in her house in Harlem for having a lesbian party. Her protege, Bessie Smith, bails her out of jail the following morning. Rainey and Smith were part of an extensive circle of lesbian and bisexual African-American women in Harlem.

Blueswomen in Harlem

The female jazz and blues singers of the Harlem Renaissance lived in a world of sexual ambiguity: While many were married, many also had affairs with other women, and presented images of lesbian life and sensibility to the outside world. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Jackie Mabley, Josephine Baker, and Ethel Waters were all part of this world. Songs recorded by these singers in the 1920s and '30s made reference to "the life" for curious club audiences and blues fans who bought their albums.

One song, recorded in 1930, told listeners:

"When you see two women walking hand in hand,
Just look 'em over and try to understand;
They go to those parties - have the lights down low -
Only those parties where women can go.
You think I'm lying - just ask Tack Ann -
Took many a woman from many a man."

After her arrest, Ma Rainey recorded "Prove it on me Blues," which teasingly referred to the event on the album cover and began:

"Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men'
They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me,
They sure got to prove it on me."

Source: Faderman 1991


1925: Eva Kochever, a Polish-Jewish immigrant, opens "Eve Addam's Tearoom" in Greenwich Village. The lesbian gathering place had a sign at the door which read, "Men are admitted but not welcome." In 1926, the tea room was raided, and Eva Kochever was deported, charged with "disorderly conduct" and writing an "obscene" book, Lesbian Love.

Source: Chauncey