A gay icon is a public figure (historical or current) who is embraced by many within lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. Qualities of a gay icon often include glamour, flamboyance, strength through adversity, and androgyny in presentation. Such icons can be of any sexual orientation or gender; they can be out or not. Most gay icons have given their support to LGBT social movements, advocating gay rights in times when it was not socially acceptable.
In a candid interview from 1980, Ball was asked her thoughts on a number of subjects, including gay rights. "It's perfectly all right with me," she replied. "Some of the most gifted people I've ever met or read about are homosexual. How can you knock it?"
Historical icons are typically elevated to such status because their sexual orientation remains a topic of great debate among historians. Modern gay icons, who are predominantly female entertainers, commonly garner a large following within LGBT communities over the course of their careers. The majority of gay icons fall into one of two categories: the tragic, sometimes martyred figure or the prominent pop culture idol.
Jeffrey Masten, a Northwestern University associate professor of English and comparative literature who wrote a book on "gay identification and musical theater," offers an answer to an obvious question: Why are all these entertaining objects of gay men's affection women? "This started through a process of cross-gender identification in which gay men heard women singers as being able to sing things about loving men (and simultaneously about the difficulty of that) that men singers weren't singing." In other words, said the professor, when Garland sang about "The Man That Got Away," gay men could relate.
Being able to triumph over troubles has universal appeal, of course, but gay men, especially, appreciate that as a key quality of a diva, said 29-year-old David Biele, author of "Vanguards," a play produced at Bailiwick Repertory in 1997 about gay life in Chicago before the 1969 gay men's Stonewall rebellion in New York. For many gay men, a diva "is a strong person who is a survivor and gay men can relate to someone who has survived in a hostile environment," says Biele.
One can never forget, of course, dearly departed divas such as the late, great Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and the original grande dame of divas: Judy Garland. Although not every gay boy or man worships divas, a good many do. Why is that?
There are many theories. In The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, Daniel Harris suggests that "at the very heart of gay diva worship is not the diva herself but the almost universal homosexual experience of ostracism and insecurity." Harris feels that we gay men live vicariously through divas who snare the handsome heterosexual men, and that we like to imagine ourselves in their place. He equates diva worship with watching football and says that it's actually just as unfeminine as football: "It is a bone-crushing spectator sport in which one watches the triumph of feminine wiles over masculine walls of a voluptuous and presumably helpless damsel in distress single-handedly moving down a lineup of hulking quarterbacks who fall dead at her feet."
|Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanny's|
Time even addressed diva worship in a review of Judy Garland's final concert on August 18, 1967, at New York's Palace Theatre. The article read, "A disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual. The boys in the tight trousers roll their eyes, tear at their hair and practically levitate from their seats, particularly when Judy sings ['Over the Rainbow']." The article also quoted a psychiatrist who said, "Judy was beaten up by life, embattled and ultimately had to become more masculine. She has the power that homosexuals would like to have, and they attempt to attain it by idolizing her."
On closer examination, we can see there is something decidedly masculine about these divas. They have a hardened, sometimes aggressively feminine side. In their performance mode, they are almost as hyperfeminine as drag queens: Diana Ross' big exaggerated hair, for example, or Cher's heavily beaded gowns and overly glittering eye shadow.
Joe Kort, a psychotherapist, sexologist, and relationship therapist and founder of the Center for Relationship and Sexual Health, believes that these divas are our stand-in mothers. His Jewish clients and friends have related to him that Barbra Streisand saved their lives. Without her movies and songs, they couldn't have survived their childhoods. Many of these men had self-absorbed mothers who were unavailable emotionally, so what better surrogate Jewish mother than Streisand? She is already unavailable in many ways, so his clients can worship her and fulfill some needs that their mothers cannot. These diva-mommies will never let us down; they are whoever we want them to be. They're our mother shadows.
Kort's theory is that in our early lives, our inability to attach and identify with men may prompt us to try to escape into the feminine realm to avoid the shame and fear of being compared unfavorably with other males. Although this is true of both gay and straight men, straight men bring these issues to their female partners. Not having woman as partners, we turn to our divas.
Most queer theorists, though, miss the boat where diva worship is concerned. Ironically, they regurgitate an ignorant heterosexual belief when they do so. They reinforce the assumption that gay people suffer from a sort of passive sadness, an overriding personality disorder, as though loneliness were unknown in other circles. It's the suffering, we've been told again and again, that unified us. We identify with women because they, too, are oppressed. There may be some truth to that, but it isn't our suffering; it's our enduring hope that creates icons. Diva worship is a sensitivity to life's endless possibilities and our ability to transcend acceptance or oppression.
Whatever the reason, these divas mean so much to us as gay men, I am thankful to them for giving us an escape from the pain of growing up gay. I admire their perseverance and their acceptance of their gay audiences. For me, they make the world a more colorful and better place.
What are some reasons you can think of for why we worship divas?