Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
I've always been surrounded by women. Most of my friends (and all my best friends) are female. I've always learned better from female teachers and — if only for consistency's sake — my "heroines" have all been women. I do have a solid group of male friends; they're just all gay. So, it's not that I haven't tried communicating with my own sex, but that (and this is a recent revelation) I find it more difficult to identify with the heterosexual male.
So I, like so many other homosexual men, have projected my energy onto idolizing the lives and works of so-called gay icons. In The Velvet Rage, psychologist Alan Downs describes three inherent stages of a homosexual's life: denial, the search for validation, and authenticity. While Downs attributes these stages to the gay man, I say they're asexual. Adolescence, according to Downs, consists of a fear that something is unlovable about us. It's this ostracized feeling, the notion of being an outsider, that sticks with so many of us throughout life. As we graduate from denial to the quest for validation (a key theme in any coming-of-age story), we dip our feet into various worlds, try on different costumes, and search not just for ourselves but for others to see themselves in us, and us in them.
The icon becomes a voice for the gay man, allowing him to express himself indirectly. The likes of Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, and Judy Garland are lifeblood. He aligns himself with them, because they identify with his quest to succeed in the face of adversity. Now, I'm not saying these women are the be-all and end-all of gay icons; I'm merely suggesting that being a woman is rather indispensable for the title. Heather Love, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, narrowed in on the reason when she told the Huffington Post that "women are marginalized, so gay men identify." On the surface, that makes sense, but it also feels like too much of a generalization. Yes, the majority of past gay icons were women, but they were glamorous women — women who were larger than life, but plagued by self-doubt.
Judy Garland is, by and large, the definition of gay icon. She was a woman who didn't fit the script of A-list beauty, but became the darling of Hollywood. She was endorsed by her contemporaries, yet seen as abnormal. Her private life was public; her problems were headlines. But you couldn't separate that from her talent. It's this sense of eternal glitz, despite hardship, that makes Elizabeth Taylor, Liza, Cher, and Grace Jones so relevant. Even Little Edie Beale and her rundown Hamptons life has been iconic-ized. Sure, the reality of her situation was far from ideal, but it reads so well on paper. Here was the first cousin of Jackie O., model and socialite, parading around in designer clothes at her Hamptons estate. That right there is what Downs' stage two is about: making your life larger, grander, and more extravagant than your peers. It proves anyone who's shamed you wrong. And it's this drive for success — be it monetary, material, or beauty — that pushes gay men toward these women. So, they can say they were successful in spite of baggage. To answer the question — why these women become staples in gay culture — I direct your attention to Downs' theory. "What [we] think is love," he said, "is often more an appreciation for another person who assists somehow in [our] quest to avoid shame."
Today, we're seeing a shift in what it means to be a gay icon. It goes beyond vulnerability and strength. Pop stars like Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Ke$ha have massive fan bases, but they're not gay icons. They don't share the sense of tragedy that Judy Garland or Liz Taylor had. This new group — Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga — expands upon Downs' definition. Besides being (and I fear the cliché) fabulous, they also have their own demons. But, and this is what's different, they're involved in the gay community, and they work to raise awareness and promote acceptance (not just tolerance).
They use their fame as a platform for social change. Struggles aren't simply projected onto them. Instead, the new gay icons align with their fan bases, so the platforms they stand on become level with the ground. The affinity I, and many in the homosexual community, feel is twofold. I respect their voices as artists and their commitment to doing more than entertaining. But I also feel an affinity, because they, like me, have had to fight both the world and themselves to become the person they want to be. And for that, I thank them.