Barbra Streisand (1962) | Wikipedia
Barbra Streisand (1962) | Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer | via Wikipedia / public domain

Barbra Streisand: Lessons from a Lesbian Icon

Genetic or cultural, the lesbian community has more than its share of overachievers, so we relate to Barbra Streisand’s need to excel.

The headline was the heckler. At the Barbra Streisand concert at Madison Square Garden on 9 October 2006, a disgruntled (and, it later turned out, possibly planted) concertgoer took issue with Streisand’s show of Democratic values via a tiresome Bush impersonator. The man in the crowd shouted, “What is this? A fundraiser?” Streisand shot back, “Why don’t you shut the fuck up?” The next morning, the papers commented on Streisand’s politics along with her performance; the remarks ranged from a call for more singing and less speechifying, to an insistence that it’s her show and she can parody what she wants to.. But for me, the big news of the show was not the F-bomb, but more of a cluster bomb. As I scanned the crowd at intermission, I saw the requisite celebrities, the big Jersey hair, and one other thing: a lot of lesbians.

Maybe you didn’t expect that last one, but I did. After all, I was there with my partner, and we were as giddy as little girls. So was it possible that the world’s most famous (lesbian) Streisand fan, Rosie O’Donnell, a few hundred rows in front of us? Indeed, there were gay women everywhere: in the front row, in the upper decks, sighting celebrities through shared binoculars, buying $40 tour T-shirts. The existence of gay male fans of Barbra is well documented and highly visible, but in the lesbian community, our fandom is just as long lived, though not as well known. Despite her many successes, Streisand has also endured a lot of jeers and loathing across the board, from studio heads as well as average red-state Americans. Like anyone who takes a different path, she has accumulated followings of folks who aren’t generally considered “normal”. This includes gay men, of course, but isn’t limited to them. Lesbians’ love of Streisand might not be as heavily reported (or parodied), but it’s very real. If a Barbra Streisand concert is a master class for vocalists, her career is an object lesson in how to be a lesbian icon.

Step 1: Observe the Holy Trinity

Lesbian icons possess three standard traits: they are strong, smart, and funny. Icons range from the obvious (Jodie Foster) to the less apparent but just as entrenched (Tyne Daly). These women may seem to have little in common, but being strong, smart, and funny goes a long way with lesbian audiences. And possessing all three in above-average quantities pretty much guarantees admission to the club–consider Allison Janney, Stockard Channing, Tina Fey, and even Project Runway’s Laura Bennett.

If a woman doesn’t have all three qualities, an abundance of one or two of them can still get her in: Hillary Clinton doesn’t exactly make us giggle, but her strength and smarts are more fortifying than any belly laugh. And she doesn’t even have to fit the Big Three in a way that seems typically lesbian. When Martha Stewart first showed up on our TVs, teaching us how to make wreaths and fold T-shirts, we didn’t care that we’d been ignoring the same lessons from our mothers for years. Martha was a savvy empire-builder from the start, and her lesbian following has never waned.

There’s no question that Barbra Streisand embodies the lesbian icon trinity of traits. But she does more: she embraces them. Women who deny their own strength or smarts (few will disclaim comedic talent) don’t generally make the grade, and those who make an effort to erase the divine attributes are often reviled by lesbians (e.g., Callista Flockhart). In Barbra, we have that unique lesbian icon who not only possesses the characteristics, but also claims them publicly and values them in others. She lives strong, smart, and funny, without apology, without wavering.

Step 2: Break the Mold

Although growing up gay in America is getting easier with every decade, it still requires a measure of self-acceptance that many heterosexuals never have to muster, or at least not until later in life. Lesbians have the additional charge of recognizing that female beauty has a wide range. Streisand doesn’t have what’s considered typical beauty. She never did — but she never did get that nose fixed, either. Nor has she tweaked any other aspect of her personality or appearance that isn’t commercial or nice or palatable in some other way. So even when she’s cooing over Robert Redford or making googly eyes at Kris Kristofferson, she’s still got it — that something that lets us know she’s her own woman, and glad of it.

Even in those “romantic” films, Streisand doesn’t give us Hollywood endings: she rarely gets the guy. From Funny Girl to The Prince of Tides, she takes her final bow alone, without a man, and still standing tall. She represents survival and self-reliance, and that’s something every lesbian can relate to: how to relish the limelight without the “happily ever after” lip-lock. This sort of independence is still rare in TV and film, so we’ll take it wherever we can get it — and Streisand comes through every time.

Maybe the lesbian appreciation for atypical good looks is just in our roots: have you seen pictures of Gertrude Stein? Whatever the cause, it’s the reason those of us who watch Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip are drawn to Christine Lahti or Sarah Paulson rather than Amanda Peet (and yeah, it doesn’t hurt that Sarah Paulson is gay in real life). This sort of “it” factor that these non-traditional-looking women have is difficult to delineate, but it’s as clear as the difference between Mary-Louise Parker (lesbian icon) and Jennifer Connelly (not even close). Couple that with courage and integrity a la The Way We Were, in which Streisand’s character insisted that “people are their principles”, and it’s instant lesbian icon. Streisand is the paradigm of atypical, independent beauty, inside and out, that appeals to lesbians who have forged their own paths.

Step 3: Walk the Walk

A mix of strong, smart, funny, and uniquely beautiful might seem to be the right sort of alchemy for creating a “feminist icon” — not necessarily a lesbian one. But on this score as on so many others, Streisand is a cut above. She has done two things that can be considered the money shots of lesbian icon-dom: speak out in support of gay rights, and play a lesbian or lesbian-ish role.

Streisand’s gay-friendly résumé includes producing the movie Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story , lending her name and art to various fundraisers (ranging from ostentatious bashes for political candidates to less glitzy causes like Jewish/Arab relations) , and having a gay son. (The latter is perhaps better seen as a cosmic joke: of course the diva’s own progeny would count himself among those most likely to appreciate her flair.) Barbra has also never made a big show of responding to rumors about her sexuality — sure, there haven’t been any lately, but most strong female celebrities get the dyke assignation at some point. This is a no-brainer of lesbian admiration: we tend to like people who don’t hate or fear us. And seeming to actually like us is a guarantee of respect, in turn, if not fandom. There’s a reason many lesbians knew who Nancy Pelosi was long before she became the Speaker of the House.

And then there’s Yentl. Barbra Streisand didn’t really look like a man (or even a boy) in that movie, but she did have a way of wearing a suit, and she knew how to flirt with Amy Irving. Their chemistry was obvious, and their “wedding night” scene was sweet and loving. And of course, Yentl was “closeted” (before she donned men’s clothes to hide her sex, she had to hide her knowledge of the Talmud, a knowledge reserved for men), and eventually “came out” (albeit as a Talmud-educated woman) and made her way to a new world. Streisand didn’t express discomfort with the role or play dumb about its lesbian undertones, like any number of starlets who immediately disclaim their on-screen dalliances with women. (Consider Terry Farrell, who — even though Star Trek fans are not exactly going to balk at “abnormal” characters — said of her on-screen kiss, “I didn’t find it easy.”),. What’s more, as producer and director of Yentl, Streisand didn’t just play the part. She brought the subtext (and main text) into being, and didn’t sidestep the references to lesbianism or transgenderism. As usual, she had her vociferous critics, but Yentl made her gay-friendliness part of the cultural landscape and cemented her lesbian icon status.

Step 4: Do Your Thing, Honey

The final key to Barbra Streisand’s lesbian icon-dom is arguably the key to everything she’s done: her sublime talent and accompanying perfectionism. Whether it’s genetic or cultural is another debate, but the lesbian community has more than its share of overachievers (from Susan B. Anthony to Martina Navratilova), so we relate to Barbra’s need to excel. The first time I heard Barbra Streisand’s voice, I was nine years old, and it was on tinny cassettes made from scratchy LPs of Songbird and Superman, and played on my secondhand Grand Prix stereo. Here was a perfect voice, taking risks, crafting melodies, and offering the simplest and best kind of entertainment in the process. She was doing what she was born to do. Lesbians tend to develop a sense of “doing their thing” early on, mostly out of necessity, and they often pursue it with the kind of dedication worthy of a diva.

One thing should be made clear: just because we idolize someone doesn’t mean we want to bed her. (On the other hand, it very well might.) It does mean she’ll get our respect, our support, and — even at $1,000 a ticket — plenty of butts in the seats. Barbra Streisand may not have noticed the peppering of lesbian couples in the crowd at Madison Square Garden that night, but she knows which side her bread is buttahed on.