“Gay Icons”, an upcoming exhibit at London’s National Gallery opening in July, leaves off the usual suspects– there’ll be no Barbra Streisand or Kylie Minogue. Instead, the a group of 10 prominent gays and lesbians, including Ian McKellan, Billie Jean King and Elton John picks personalities like Nelson Mandela, Princess Di and Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin. Is this heresy or an enlightened view of what a gay icon is, notwithstanding John’s nepotism? Come to think of it, just what exactly makes a gay icon so iconic? For would be gay icons, here’s a guide to making it into the queer pantheon.
Overturn the established system.
The world is full of injustices, great and small. Most of us spend our lives trying to make peace with the way things are, or simply survive the daily grind. Then there are those who see the world not as what it is, but what it could be. Calling out that the monarchy has no clothes cost Princess Di a fairytale life within the walls of Buckingham Palace, but by making herself “the princess of the people”, she ultimately saved the monarchy from itself.
Examples: Nelson Mandela, Harvey Milk, Justin Bond
Make yourself dangerous.
While some get by on charm, a great gay icon isn’t afraid to piss people off. When someone pushes you, push back, especially when nobody expects it. Subversion for it’s own sake can get tiresome (We’re looking at you, Courtney Love) and while gloss and glamor surround many a gay icon, others achieve lasting fame by ripping off the polychrome varnish of our everyday life to expose the messy and vital guts that make life worth living.
Examples: Marlene Dietrich, Oscar Wilde, Larry Kramer
Move us with poetry and style.
It takes true talent to get others to see the world through their own eyes. Ask Liza Minelli why she’s still performing all these years and she’ll tell you, “To make people happy.” Andy Warhol took tabloid matinee idols, boxes of Brillo and mylar and elevated them to the level of fine art and in doing so, expanded the definition of beauty to include the mundane. Make the world a prettier place and we’ll love you for it.
Examples: Walt Whitman, k.d. lang, Dusty Springfield
Let’s face it– a lot of our favorite gay icons are beloved because they leave behind a trail of misery and personal anguish. Frankly, this is the least admirable aspect of our gay icon worship and if we’re honest, there’s a bit of misogyny at work, since the long-suffering gay icon is almost always a woman. We’ve spent too many nights at piano bars listening to stories about Judy’s pills to make any effort to deny it. Dying before your time might lead to immortality, but it comes at a steep price in the here and now.
Examples: Judy Garland, Gia, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe
It’s not enough to show us your warts; make them beautiful.
In our media age of instant celebrity, being in the public spotlight means having all your dirty secrets out in the open. This alone isn’t enough to impress. If it were, there’d be a thousand Lindsay Lohan drag queens by now. It’s not enough to expose yourself to the world; you have to own it and make it your own. Dare we say that Britney Spears is the personification of this rule? After all the head shaving, vajay-jay flashing and flabby dance routines, she’s kept making music, refusing to let her own mistakes hold her down. That’s real courage.
Examples: Madonna, Marianne Faithfull, Rufus Wainwright
Do not give a fuck.
There are those who seek the spotlight and then there are those who by being themselves, draw the spotlight to them. When you know who you are, you don’t have to waste your time being who everyone expects you to be. Take the case of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Love her or hate her, she’s never been afraid of being the smart, ambitious and politically shrewd woman she’s been her whole life– and she’s not going to be baking you any fucking cookies. In fact, it wasn’t til she returned to her brash populist bullfighter self that her Presidential bid caught fire– albeit it too late to stop the Obama Kool-Aid flood.
Examples: Tori Amos, Divine, Mae West