From the review by Lisa Hix in Collector's Weekly:
When Gertrude “Ma” Rainey - known as “The Mother of Blues” - sang, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie/ Talk to the gals just like any old man,” in 1928's Prove It on Me, she was flirting with scandal, challenging the listener to catch her in a lesbian affair. It might not seem like a big deal to us now, but back then, pursuing same-sex relations could get you thrown in jail. The good news for women-loving chanteuses like Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley is that blues music in the 1920s was so far under the radar of mainstream America, female blues singers could get away with occasionally expressing their unconventional desires...And so we went to the fabulous British Museum (of all places) this afternoon (as part of the Camden & Islington LGBT History Month celebrations) to see a showing of the utterly magnificent T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s documentary. Here, for your delectation it is, in its entirety:
...the blues world was the perfect realm for people who were thought of as “sexual deviants” to inhabit, as it thrived far outside the scope of the dominant white American culture in the early 20th century. In Jazz Age speakeasies, dive bars, and private parties, blue singers had the freedom to explore alternative sexuality, and on a rare occasion, they even expressed it in song.
[According to Robert Philipson, director of the documentary:] “In lyrics, they talk about ‘bulldaggers,’ which is they called butch lesbians at that time, or ‘BD women,’ ‘BD’ being short for bulldaggers. There were references to being ‘in the life,’ which was understood to mean same-sex activity.”
In 1930’s The Boy in the Boat, Ma Rainey’s protégé Bessie Smith sang, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look ‘em over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties - have the lights down low - only those parties where women can go.” A married woman who kept a female lover on the road with her, Smith is known to have exploded at a girlfriend, “I got twelve women on this show, and I can have one every night if I want it.”
With short cropped hair and a tuxedo, the lesser-known Gladys Bentley commandeered the crowd at Harlem’s Clam House in the 1920s, singing cabaret, tickling the piano keys, and flirting shamelessly with the women in the audience. The only one of these women to openly exploit her lesbian identity, she was known for taking popular songs and giving them lewd lyrics; and she asked the audience to help her improvise naughty lines.
“Harlem’s 133rd Street was called ‘Jungle Alley,’ because there were so many nightclubs on it,” Philipson says, explaining that Harlem had the only Roaring Twenties jazz clubs and cabarets in the country that drew white “tourists” curious about “race music.” “The Clam House was famous because it had Bentley, reveling in her image as a ‘bulldagger.’ Because of her, it became a place where black lesbians and gay men would go to hang out. White sightseers from downtown would check out her show as well.”
Camden & Islington LGBT History Month 2014