Judy, Judy, Judy

Want To Be a Gay Icon? Here’s How


“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

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  • fixator

    Where does Gore Vidal fit into this?

  • Adriana Kraft

    Very thoughtful, excellent list


  • Tallskin

    Fixator, Gore Vidal has hardly been a gay icon. I think I am correct in saying that he’s never ever ‘come out’. He belongs to a generation that thinks to be obvious about being gay is a bad thing. He’s also a rather bitchy and deeply unpleasant man, a member of the US ruling class who likes to remind others of his social standing in no uncertain terms at all times – it is possibly this latter that has caused him never to ‘come out’.

    Far more important a question is where is Harry Hay founder of the US Mattachine society http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Hay ???

    But that’s probably cos the exhibition is British and few of us Brits have heard of him. But the Queerty team (if they could put down for a minute, and stop gushing over, some fashion magazine) should’ve heard of him yet they don’t mention him on their list.

  • Jason

    Tallskin, you couldn’t be more wrong about Gore Vidal. He is, and has been, very open about his relationships both romantic and sexual.

    It’s true he he has issues with the word “gay,” and he refuses to let his queerness be used as his defining characteristic, but that is not the same as being ‘in the closet.’

    And what does whether he is “bitchy and deeply unpleasant” have anything to do with it? He’s a an 83-year-old queer historian and politician who wrote one of the first novels ever to feature an unambiguous queer protagonist, and suffered professionally because of it. Maybe he’s earned the right to be a grouchy old man.

  • blake

    James Dean is overrated. I’ve tried watching his few films and in each he is just a ham.

  • Gurlene

    @fixator: Hey, if Ms. Cleo can jump on the gay bandwagon why not ol’ Gore? Who knows, maybe George Bush might get desperate enough to see the “light” in resurrecting his “image”.

  • Vinman

    Loved the article. A little heavy for a Friday – but excellent kick off for a little introspection.

  • ggreen

    Rufus Wainwright is a Gay Icon. No he’s Deep Throats gay brother Sore Throat.

  • Chitown Kev

    uh, James Baldwin. Nothing more needs to be said.

  • fixator

    @Jason: Thanks for putting them straight on Gore Vidal. What amazes me most about American people is that they disown some homosexuals because of their class. Further their total ignorance about their fellow countrymen…ugh!

  • fixator

    @Gurlene: Sorry, don’t get what you are saying here….wtf does George and Gore have to do with each other…how inane of you

  • Chitown Kev


    Yeah, totally didn’t get the Gore Vidal comments. Gore Vidal was never, ever shy about being a bitchy queen and did not have his reviews published by the New York Times or Time magazine after he published “The City and the Pillar” in 1948 I’d put Gore Vidal on that list before I’d put Truman Capote on there. Vidal and Baldwin were OUT there

  • dizzyspins

    The British exhibit sounds ridiculous, as do most of Queerty’s suggestions. Either you do an exhibit devoted to major pop-culture icons (Madonna) or you do one devoted to people who have made real significant strides for the gay community (Harvey Milk).

    Nelson Mandela is a great man, and he’s said many gay-friendly things, but he’s not a gay icon in either sense. Bernie Taupin?! I hope the National Gallery show is free, because I wouldnt pay admission to see it.

  • Greymalkin

    @Tallskin: “Gore Vidal has hardly been a gay icon. I think I am correct in saying that he’s never ever ‘come out’. He belongs to a generation that thinks to be obvious about being gay is a bad thing.”

    Where did you get that from? Vidal has always been open about his sexuality. In fact, his 1946 novel “The City and the Pillar” was a ground breaking:
    – One of the first to deal directly with homosexuality.
    – First post-World War II novel with an openly gay and well-adjusted protagonist is not killed off at the end of the story for defying social norms.
    _ Among the few gay novels reprinted in inexpensive paperback form as early as the 1950s

    As for his generation, he was part of one of the most influential and open group of queer artist of the 20th Century. Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote wrote some of the most popular queer themed novels and screenplays. These men were not hiding their sexuality, in fact the found ways to weave it into their extremely successful work.

    “He’s also a rather bitchy and deeply unpleasant man”
    Not sure what that has to do with anything…and I certainly don’t understand why that would take him out of the running for being a Gay Icon.

  • Tallskin

    LOL, well that got the discussion going!

    Alright I will concede that I was wrong about Gore Vidal! I actually used to like the man- but whenever I see him on the TV over here in the UK nowadays he really is an old sourpuss.

    What I meant about the class thing, is that I have seen him in interviews sneering at people of a ‘lower class’ to him – in a way that died out over here in class ridden england a long time ago.

    And yes, I have read The City And The Pillar, with its changed ending.

  • Phillipe Kleefield

    I think you shoudl reconsider the Kool-Aid flood? Unless I’m missing a rhtorical strategy explicitly used by Obama in reference to Kool-Aid, I’m not sure how I feel about “kool-aid flood”. Considering the association of kool-aid with Black and African American communitites, I think your comment is slightly insensitive and bordering on stereotypical. This might just be my own issue, but the Kool-Aid immediately stuck out to me.

  • Chitown Kev

    @Phillipe Kleefield:

    actually, Kool-Aid refers to the Jim Jones suicides in Guyana in the 1970’s, not African American communities. That is your shit.

  • fixator

    @Tallskin: Dude which ending did you read? The one where the lover dies!?

  • fixator

    @fixator: uneducated fool

  • Tallskin

    Fixator, no I think it was the one with the (changed to) happy ending.

    it was a long long time ago when I read it!

  • kevin (not that one)

    Okay, but where does my gay icon Parker Posey fit into this?

  • Darien

    Praise Tori for don’t give a fuck,
    I’m gay and she’s my icon!! lol

  • alan brickman

    do you have to have “gay icon” spelled out with building blocks or crayons?…of course they gay icons…don’t forget to include Arthur Laurents….

  • GJR

    Um, BarbAra Streisand? It’s Barbra. That’s a pretty grievous offense. Do it again and I WILL get your gay license revoked!

  • Yul Brynner

    “albeit it too late to stop the Obama Kool-Aid flood”

    Seriously? She lost – pack up the resentment, and move
    on with your life. (She already has – why can’t you?)

  • RainaWeather

    @Darien: Ditto!

  • Queerky

    I am surprised no one has mentioned Freddie Mercury. He was born in Tanzania to Indian parents. Went to school in Bombay. He was gay in a culture which does not tolerate gayness. He became a rock star in the Uk in spite of his sexuality and race because of his massive talent. His work is still relevant. He died all too soon of AIDS. If that is not the essence of what makes a gay icon then go back into your closets and stay there till you see sense.

  • getreal

    @Queerky: You just gave him a pretty nice tribute yourself.

Comments are closed.