Imagine for a moment—you’ve gone over to meet the new neighbor and introduce yourself. He’s a handsome, masculine sort of guy, but something about him tells you that he’s not what would be considered a “ladies’ man”. Left alone for a moment in his living room while he takes a phone call, you do a quick scan of his CD collection for clues as to which “team” he plays for. Nestled between the Shawn Colvin, U2, and Greenday CDs, you find the damning evidence: copies of Judy at Carnegie Hall, the soundtrack of Funny Girl, and the extended play version of Madonna’s Vogue. Yep, he’s a queer.
It’s possible you’ve reached an inaccurate conclusion, but not probable. Ask most straight men if they’ve heard Judy at Carnegie Hall and they’ll respond, “Judy who?”. Many gay men, however, know that Judy is Judy Garland, and Judy at Carnegie Hall, Garland’s 1961 Grammy-winning Album of the Year, is the concert album that put the diva back on top.
And rightfully so. Today’s performers could learn from Garland’s comeback concert, a brilliant performance from a legendary entertainer. Here she is, alone on stage with her band—no pyrotechnics, back-up dancers, costume changes, dazzling lights, or mammoth sets—throwing herself without abandon into song after song after song. “I don’t ever want to go home,” she shouts to the frenzied audience. “I’ll sing ‘em all, and we’ll stay all night!”
For many gay men and women, the appeal of the album is not just the artistry of a true superstar, but the fact that Garland had to overcome numerous demons just to walk out on to the stage that night. Battling her drug addictions, washed-up status, and an almost paralyzing anxiety that led her to believe she would fail miserably, Garland considered cancelling the concert until seconds before she flew onto the stage, smiling and gesturing wildly. She rose above all the obstacles, and as they say in show business, “knocked ‘em dead”.
It is her perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that has earned Garland her status as a Gay Icon. A chubby kid who was forced to take diet pills by her studio, a failure in marriage, a star whose popularity rose and fell repeatedly, an addict (thanks to the diet pills), a financial disaster who often had to sneak out of towns without paying hotel and restaurant bills—there was no reason why Garland should have enjoyed the kind of success she did, except for an adoring fan base and the sheer will to survive in the only business she knew.
Garland is hardly the only diva upon whom society has stuck the label “gay icon”. Who exactly is classified as a gay icon will vary depending on whom you ask, but the one trait that most all who are listed have in common is an ability to overcome the odds or fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Bette Davis, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand—too unattractive to be stars, at least by Hollywood standards. Cher, Dolly Parton, Carmen Miranda, and yes, Tammy Faye Baker—too over the top. Madonna, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford—too trashy for their respective times. Yet, all have succeeded, and in their success, they have earned the admiration of homosexuals worldwide. And it doesn’t hurt that, for the most part, they have embraced their gay fans, in turn.
Why is it that older gay men are attracted to such tortured souls? Why don’t gay women share the same list of icons? And why don’t young gay men share the same attractions for these legends? The stereotypical answer would be that these women make great subjects for female impersonators to emulate, but such an answer is superficial.
For older gay men, the women they idolize represent their own personal struggles. Gay men who are in their 40s or older grew up in a time when they were judged on the basis of one thing: their homosexuality. It didn’t matter if you were a great teacher, dentist, accountant, neighbor, citizen. What mattered, and what people talked about, was that you were “that way”. Understandably, there emerged a desire to be judged for the whole package, not just for sexual inclinations—a longing to be recognized for your skills on the job and whether or not you were a good person who played by the rules, paid your taxes, and treated your neighbors with kindness and respect. Those were all a part of what made these men individuals, but they were rarely acknowledged. (While gays are still judged on their sexual preference today, it is not a factor that limits one’s ability to succeed in society as it once was.)
So too, the gay icons of yesteryear were too easily classified. Stuck with labels that presumably would have limited their potential, these stars became legends anyway. When Barbra Streisand belts out “I’m the Greatest Star” in Funny Girl, she is giving the world notice that she, like the comic Fanny Brice she is portraying, will not be denied; “When you’re gifted / Then you’re gifted / These are facts…Do you think beautiful girls are going to stay stars forever? I should say not! Any minute they’re going to be out - finished! Then it’ll be my turn.” And it was quickly her turn, although beautiful girls continued to get by on their looks (see Paris Hilton); despite Streisand’s large nose, crossed-eyes, and gangly body, there was no overlooking her masterful timing and impressive vocal range.
Likewise, Bette Davis was all wrong for the part, whatever part it may have been. Short-statured and stocky, with now immortalized bulging eyes, Davis came on the scene during a time when Hollywood favored the glamour of Carole Lombard, the cold beauty of Greta Garbo, and the grace of Ginger Rogers. Yet Davis succeeded in a variety of roles, from lonely spinster to alcoholic star, Southern belle, to lovesick cancer victim. Davis had a set of brass balls that could match any man’s, and her toughness allowed her to win roles that seemed more suited for the studio’s ingénues. But ultimately, it was her talent that kept her in the game.
It is easy to understand why gay men of this era idolized these women: they had been able to accomplish what gay men could not by breaking the stereotype assigned to them and being recognized for all their assets. Lesbians of the same era, unless they chose to live and dress like men, didn’t face the same level of stereotyping as gay men, so the need to find a role model was not as strong.
This is not to imply that lesbians do not have icons, but typically such icons tend to come from their own ranks or have been rumored to have dabbled in same-sex relationships. However, that is not the only characteristic that qualifies one to be a lesbian icon. You also have to be powerful. Eleanor Roosevelt certainly fills that bill; a woman trapped in a marriage to a philandering husband, she became one of the nation’s greatest First Ladies and an honored diplomat. Martina Navratilova is a force to be reckoned with both on the tennis court and off. And while one may not think of Ellen DeGeneres as a power-broker, she is a trailblazer in the fight for gay rights and one of the most influential women in show business.
Perhaps the qualities of a lesbian icon are best represented in the character of Xena, Warrior Princess, who was must-see TV for many lesbians during her six seasons on the air. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times that the lesbian who lived next door to us called in a panic, “I have to work late. Can you go next door and set my VCR to record Xena?” There wasn’t a man or god whose ass Xena couldn’t kick and look good doing it. Supposedly, Xena was straight—she had more than a few male lovers—but it was her relationship with sidekick Gabrielle that endeared her to gay women. The bond between the two was one of best friends, sisterly, but there was always an underlying sexual tension present.
These lesbian icons may have been commanding women, but they were not “manly women”. Each possessed a level of femininity that makes them attractive as women; it is the strength of their character, however, that elevates them to the status of icon. Martina Navratilova, for instance, was easily pegged as a lesbian when she emerged on the tennis scene in the mid-‘70s. Fleeing the oppressive culture of her native Czechoslovakia, it was obvious that she was a woman lacking confidence, often appearing in Grand Slam finals with a look of “How did I get here?” on her face and breaking down in a flood of tears when she won. As she became more acclimated to Western culture, her confidence grew, and she gained the admiration of both gay and straight women. Her self-assurance was, and still is, sexy.
Martina possesses another quality, one that endears her to a new generation of gay women and men: her tendency to speak her mind. While older homosexuals clung to images of women who overcame the odds, today’s homosexuals opt to idolize those who are controversial and confrontational. Kylie Minogue, for example, was an international pop star in the ‘80s, scoring most notably with 1988’s remake of “Locomotion”. Back then, she was the cute and squeaky-clean girl-next-door. After a career slump, she blasted her way back onto the scene with 2001’s “Can’t Get You out of My Head”. But this was not the same Kylie; gone were the frilly, lacy dresses and crimped, fluffed hair. This Kylie was a slutty, gyrating sexpot. And gay men loved her, vaulting her to the same exalted status as Madonna and Cher.
Younger gay men turn to women who have no problems being “in your face” for their gay icons. The attitude of rejecting social conventions comes in many forms for these gay icons. Most notable is Madonna, who even in her proper English motherhood, manages to illicit controversy; her entire career has been built around the premise that what ever society expected of her, she would defy, particularly in terms of sex. Cher, Christina Aguilera, and Fergie are seen as being open about the sexuality, as well as being talented women.
Yet, for many gay men, sex isn’t all that sells. What is equally appealing is the tendency to speak one’s mind, no matter how inappropriate the comments. Two perfect examples are actually fictional characters: Suzanne Sugarbaker of Designing Women and Sophia Petrillo of Golden Girls. Although the series these two characters appeared on have been off the air for years, they have both enjoyed resurgence in reruns, in large part because of gay men’s adulation of the self-centered and politically incorrect Suzanne and the painfully blunt Sophia. A real-life example of such a woman comes courtesy of Tammy Faye, who has turned her back on evangelical homophobia and openly embraced gay men as “God’s children”.
This shift in the nature of what makes one a gay icon is representative of the shift in the outlook of gay men and women. No longer do homosexuals feel the need to prove themselves as worthwhile men and women with admirable qualities, as gay men and women often find their talents being recognized without reference to sexual orientation. Consequently, the tables have turned. Homosexuals want to be respected for their sexual decisions and to have the opportunity to speak openly about it without condemnation, so it is natural that their idols would be those who are open, honest, and sexual without regard to social expectations.
Displaying such qualities has allowed men to join the ranks of gay icons as well. Oscar Wilde, although dead for over a century, has emerged as such an icon. With his biting wit and mockery of stilted 19th century social rules, Wilde is a perfect representation of the type of gay man many would like to be. Late Queen front man Freddie Mercury has also achieved elevated status after death. Boy George has the potential to join the ranks, if he will stop being such a freak.
In essence, gay men and women are attracted to those individuals that most exhibit the qualities they would like to possess, regardless of the time period. As social mores change, the roles gay men and lesbians assume shift as well, bringing in new qualities for admiration. Still, the LGBT segment of the population is no different from the straight segment in its selection of heroes, idols, and icons. We look to those who exhibit the characteristics which we would like to have. Just as a pacifist would idolize Gandhi and King and a businessperson may seek to emulate Trump or Gates, gay men and lesbians put on a pedestal those individuals who represent their personalities and personal societal concerns.
Discovering Garland, Streisand, and Madonna in your new neighbor’s CD collection tells you more than whether or not he is gay. It tells you a little bit about who he is as a human being and how he feels the world views him. Our choice for icons is about more than just high camp and melodrama; it’s about who we are in a fundamental way.