Throughout the decades, LGBTQ people have used the term “gay icon” to describe a specific kind of public figure: typically a larger-than-life diva whose life, work and allyship has made a significant impact on queer culture and its devoted fanbase.
But what makes a gay icon, well, iconic?
“A gay icon is somebody who represents the determination to be who they are — and [is] unapologetic for it,” Bruce Vilanch, the legendary Hollywood writer and culture critic, tells Yahoo Life. Having an understanding of what it’s like to “be on the outside” is equally as important.
“When we create icons out of people, we're doing it because we realize that they get us," he continues. "Lady Gaga gets us, Madonna gets us, but also, Nelson Mandela gets us. They're all gay icons because they represent part of our struggle — and they acknowledge us.” (Learn more about some of the most well-known gay icons in the interactive AR, below.)
These qualities are certainly shared by several figures today: from Lil Nas X, whose frankness about his Black, queer identity is changing the face of hip-hop; JoJo Siwa, a Gen-Z powerhouse whose devoted tween fanbase watched her make history as one-half of the first same-sex pairing in the history of Dancing With the Stars; and Demi Lovato, whose conversations about their nonbinary identity ignited dialogue about the importance of using inclusive language.
Of course, such qualities were also recognized by queer audiences as far back as the 1920s (although there wasn’t exactly a term for it at the time), in actresses like the star of Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson, and vixen Mae West, a vocal LGBTQ ally who shocked the nation after casting drag queens in her Broadway play The Drag. Golden Age stars like Joan Crawford, who was reportedly bisexual, and Bette Davis were revered by queer fans not just for their campy performances, but also because they were surrounded by gay people in their personal lives.
While it’s easy to use blanket terms like “camp,” “diva” or “glamor” when attempting to describe such icons, the gay-culture critic Michael Musto explains that not all of them explicitly fall into these categories — just as all are not pop singers or movie stars. They can also be socialites, like "Little" and "Big" Edie Bouvier Beale, the infamous cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis whose lives were profiled in the documentary Grey Gardens. (As explained by Michael Wilson, who directed a production of Grey Gardens — The Musical, "There’s meant to be shame associated with being outrageous. You suffer a lot of ridicule, you suffer bullying. These two women suffered those things … but they endured, they survived," and with humor, which Wilson called "the life-resilient force of the gay community.") Or they can be royalty, like Princess Diana, whose mix of glamour and activism has made for an enduring reputation as a gay icon.
“Queer people are oppressed, by nature, so we rely oftentimes on gay icons to lift us up, to elevate us, to educate us and inspire us,” explains Musto, who credits such icons for providing queer people catharsis in times of trauma — whether during the height of the AIDS crisis or amid the anti-trans culture war today.
But to fully grasp the concept of the gay icon, it's important to go back a bit, to the mother of all gay icons: Judy Garland.
Friends of Dorothy
As Vilanch explains, the modern archetype of a gay icon is commonly understood to be the legendary Garland, who would have turned 100 this year (prompting celebrations including in-theater Wizard of Oz screenings and a perfume launch). The star’s image, as a tortured soul who suffered for her art, layered with incredible talent and unwavering loyalty to her gay fanbase, struck a chord with the long-oppressed LGBTQ community — and still does today.
At a time when being out was dangerous, Garland’s concerts were well-attended by out gay men, lesbians and trans people alike. “There was much comment at the time about her gay fanbase, and it was never pleasant,” Vilanch explains. “In all of the reviews you read, they talk about the ‘boys in the balcony,’ but they weren’t in the balcony. They were right there in the front row.”
She's even thought to be connected, at least tangentially, to the phrase "friend of Dorothy," coded slang, and the way gay men sometimes referred to each other as far back as World War II. The term probably refers to the misfit pals of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as portrayed on screen by Garland (although the term has also been associated with the American satirist of the 1920s Dorothy Parker).
In any event, Vilanch says of Garland, “There was a tremendous amount of simpatico, a back-and-forth, between her gay fans and herself. She expressed heartbreak so eloquently." Further, he adds, "That generation also watched her develop from this bright-eyed girl into this woman who had been ravaged by her own insanity, and by the insanity of the world she'd been put into.”
Garland died of an accidental overdose at 47 — and her funeral was held just hours before the historic Stonewall uprising, a revolt that's known for jump-starting the modern LGBTQ-rights movement. Some historians have argued that the so-called "riot" was triggered by the emotional aftermath of Garland’s funeral, although that premise has been questioned.
“She wasn't the cause of Stonewall,” Musto says. “But her death was in the air.” The transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, a leader of the uprising, did see the loss of Garland as a turning point, according to Martin Duberman's 1994 book Stonewall, a historic recounting of the event. “It’s the end of an era," he reports Rivera saying through her tears. "The greatest singer, the greatest actress of my childhood is no more … no one left to look up to.”
Whether she played a part that night or not, the timing of Garland's funeral helped solidify her legacy in the queer community for generations to come.
After her death, a slew of other beloved performers followed in her footsteps — including her equally legendary daughter, Liza Minnelli, who was 23 when her mother died.
“Liza has a lot of similar qualities that make her a gay icon,” Musto says. Of course, Minnelli won the hearts of queer fans for her career-turning role in 1972’s Cabaret, which earned her an Academy Award, as well as for her reputation In the 1970s for “partying with the gays” at Studio 54, including with her dear friend Halston (not to mention that two of her ex-husbands, Peter Allen and David Gest, were rumored to be gay).
Vilanch points out that divas like Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross were also grabbing their share of attention, displaying a sensibility that resonated with gay fans.
Midler, who was raised in Hawaii before starting out on her career in 1970s New York City singing at a gay men's bathhouse, is a unique example of an icon who earned her reputation in the gay community before making it into the mainstream. Her devoted queer fanbase has never left her.
“I don't think she ever anticipated that was the way her career was going to go, but it was the way it went,” says Vilanch, who was Midler’s collaborator for nearly 50 years. “She was attracted to that [queer] sensibility, because she herself understood it. She was always an outsider. Our joke was: ‘It was tough being the only Jewish girl in a Samoan neighborhood.’”
Barbra Streisand, similarly, “has always known the value of her gay audience,” Musto explains. Not only had she come into Hollywood as an outsider who successfully challenged beauty standards, she was known for taking on roles, in films from Funny Girl to Yentl, portraying outsiders who found their confidence from within — something that resonated deeply with queer audiences. Plus, she’s long been an outspoken advocate for equality (no doubt fueled by support for her son, Jason Gould, a gay man).
In the same vein, Ross's music has been a beacon for LGBTQ fans through the decades, starting with her glamorous start with the Supremes. Her fierce turn as a supermodel in Mahogany solidified her place as a diva, while “I’m Coming Out” continues to be one of the most popular gay anthems worldwide.
Meanwhile, icons like Cher, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna have not only embraced their gay fans, but have made staunch efforts to elevate them in their work and activism. “Madonna was one of the first people to really recognize the importance of the gay audience,” Musto explains. “She made us center stage. She worked with her gay brother and so many others, like Jean Paul Gaultier, and catered to a gay audience.”
Musto argues that Madonna took what Garland manifested — “being vulnerable and strong at the same time” — and concentrated it. “Madonna was just strong,” he explains. “She didn’t show vulnerability.” She also, after losing many friends to AIDS, became a staunch activist, raising and donating millions of dollars over the years to AIDS research.
And that brings up another icon quality, which is an ability to “bounce back” after experiencing loss, explains LGBTQ journalist Dan Avery. “People like Cher and Judy Garland went from superstardom to financial ruin, and then back again,” he says. That, combined with a track record of solid work, is what sets them apart from the rest.
“As much as I enjoy the music of someone like Ariana Grande, or even some of the younger stars, it's like, you haven't really suffered the slings and arrows,” he adds. “You're approaching icon status, but I don't think you're there yet.”
The future is intersectional
While pop idols and icons like David Bowie, Elton John and Melissa Etheridge have spoken publicly about their queer identities throughout their careers, it’s important to note that the idea of out and proud LGBTQ people — especially Black nonbinary/trans folks — being embraced by gay and mainstream audiences alike is a fairly new one.
“There's a difference in, say, Ellen DeGeneres’s iconography and Lil Nas X’s iconography or a Saucy Santana’s iconography. That difference is how those folks show up in the world,” explains Tre’Vell Anderson, a Black nonbinary entertainment journalist and activist. "Queer folks, we have more complex and nuanced conversations about our icons than, you know, the 'John Hughes-cis-het' public does. And I think that's OK."
While DeGeneres certainly “kicked down doors” when she came out publicly at the height of her hit show in 1997, and suffered from it, Anderson can’t help but acknowledge that, as a white cisgender woman, DeGeneres was more “palpable” for mainstream audiences to embrace, and that her coming out didn’t create opportunities for Black trans/nonbinary people to rise.
It would be nearly 20 years before shows like Orange is the New Black and Pose made stars — and icons — out of Laverne Cox and Mj Rodriguez, both of whom have broken barriers for trans and nonbinary performers in front of and behind the camera.
Performers like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, meanwhile, the last of whom identifies as bisexual, have followed in Madonna’s footsteps by making huge strides toward inclusivity. Though Beyoncé is a straight, cisgender woman, her ability to capture the essence of Black queer sensibilities have given millions of queer fans confidence to be themselves. And Gaga routinely uses her platform to fight bigotry and defend equality.
“I really could have used icons like that when I was growing up,” Musto says when speaking of their activism. “The world has changed. Today, we need gay idols that are just going to be tough and kick ass. That's Gaga, that's Beyoncé.”
Further, Anderson adds, today’s audiences crave authentic queer representation beyond strength and glamour and resilience, noting that the term “gay icon” has evolved to include LGBTQ folks. Among them are figures like RuPaul and Billy Porter — not to mention trans icons like Cox, perhaps the most famous trans person in the world, and Umbrella Academy star Elliot Page, who came out as trans last year. Pushing culture ahead, they have had a profound impact.
“Lil Nas X, in particular, as a Black, gay man in hip-hop, who is at the top of the pop charts, and who is a massive troll on social media, we haven't seen Black gay folks do that on the level he's doing it,” Anderson says. “Folks looking finally feel represented, like, ‘If Lil Nas X can be his fabulously gay self at the top of the charts, maybe we can be our fabulously queer selves at work or at brunch — or whatever the case may be.”
—AR produced by Tim Chaffee, Nathalie Cruz, Jacquie Cosgrove, Kat Vasquez
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