The other day I watched the film Auntie Mame with my boyfriend. He had never seen it and, feeling the need to offer him some more in the way of gay culture, it was my duty to add another campy film with fabulous outfits and shady one liners to his ongoing “gay training.” He loved it of course, and while we watched it I couldn’t help but admire how fabulous Rosalind Russel looked in the film and how it’s no wonder she was a sort of gay icon of the time. This got me to thinking about the gay icons that me and all my gay male friends currently fawn over to varying degrees and I wondered why the very first names that popped into my busy little brain were Madonna, Cher and Cyndi Lauper. None of them are gay and they are certainly not men. So I wondered what kind of response I might get if I cast a wider net and I posed the question to my friends on Facebook: What names come to mind when you hear the words Gay Icon?
I received almost 100 responses. By an overwhelming majority, Madonna was the person most mentioned, followed by Cher, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Cyndi Lauper and Bette Middler. A few things stood out to me: they were mostly straight, white females and they seemed to mostly be musicians. Mind you there were a few mentions for men such as Harvey Milk, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde and even 2 mentions for Quentin Crisp. But about 80% of the responses were women in the music business, 10% were men in entertainment (music and film) and the remaining 10% or so were historical figures in the LGBT movement, both male and female.
Upon analyzing the list, I began to wonder why NO ONE mentioned two of the most out and visible female GAY musicians, kd Lang and Melissa Etheridge? These are strong, talented women who bravely came out of the closet when it wasn’t in fashion to do so. They were pioneers, active in the community the moment they came out, if not before. While it’s true that they have been out of the public eye for some time, they are still active and supporting of our community. I think the answer to that is that they aren’t alpha type females nor are they sexy and glamorous, traits that we, as gay men, seem to require in our icons.
For me, however, the most important trait that has earned the aforementioned divas the title of Gay Icon is that they have supported and stood behind the LGBTQ community for the vast majority of their careers. Both Madonna and Cyndi Lauper are very vocal supporters of the community. Most recently, Ms. Lauper opened a shelter for homeless LGBTQ teens here in NYC through her True Colors Foundation. I would not want to forget to mention that Cher, Bette Middler, Liza Minelli and Barbra Streisand have all worked hard for our community and for AIDS/HIV research as well. These stars have taken the honor that we bestowed upon them and WORKED to keep our support and to let us know that they value us.
Sir Elton John is one of the few actual gay icons who came up during my brief survey who actually IS gay. While he was flamboyant in his costuming and manner from the beginning of his career, it wasn’t until 1976 that he came out as bi-sexual and again in 1988 came out as gay after his divorce. Since then he created the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992. Every year, the Elton John Foundation hosts it’s annual post-Oscar Party and this year alone was able to raise $6.2M for AIDS research.
What are today’s icon’s doing to get and keep our support? Outside of Lady Gaga, how often are we hearing about modern gay Icons actively working for the LGBTQ community? For that matter, are we demanding it of them or are we just satisfied with paying to see their concerts and buying their music like frenzied schoolgirls? Maybe it’s the “diva” struggle. The ability to rise up from the depths of despair, depression and public breakdowns and emerge fabulous and stronger because of it. As gay men, we can relate to that because of the struggle so many of us experienced fighting just be our truest selves. It’s a great story and it’s one that we can all relate to in one shape or another.
But it isn’t enough to earn the title of gay icon. Not anymore. I need to see more activity and appreciation for the support that is given to the modern Gay Icon. It’s no longer enough to thank your gay fans or parade gay friends and relatives in the media. It continues to be important to do the work. Gay Icon is a title that should be earned like any other and we need to respect what it means. While it’s true that the landscape has changed and we now have more rights and protections than ever before, we still have a long way to go and we need all the support we can get. Because we now have so much more to lose, we must ask these ladies the question that another female Gay Icon once posed, What Have You Done For Me Lately?