What Does it Mean to Be a ‘Gay Icon’?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tom Mack.

With the process of coming out to my close friends and select members of my family came my developing interest in ‘gay culture’. So I decided to research the topic of gay icons.

The definition of a gay icon is ‘a historical figure, celebrity or public figure who is embraced by many within gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities’.

Gay icons tend to be examples of glamour, flamboyance and having strength through adversity. Generally the female stars depicted by drag queens are among the ranks of gay icons, for example Marilyn Monroe, Cher and Lady GaGa.

So were there any historical gay icons?

One of the most well known gay figures in history is Oscar Wilde who was as ‘out of the closet’ as one could possibly be in the late nineteenth century.

His characteristics of flamboyance, decadence and tragedy make him the quintessential historic gay icon; Oscar Wilde experienced both the upper echelons of Victorian society in his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas and sunk to the bottom of the heap when he was sentenced to two years of hard labour for ‘gross indecency with other men’.

He ended up adopting the name ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ when in exile after his release from prison; the name ‘Sebastian’ has symbolic importance as a reference to Saint Sebastian, plausibly the earliest gay icon.

Marie Antoinette was an early lesbian icon, and rumours of her lesbian love affairs circulated in anti-royalist pamphlets before the French Revolution. Towards the end of the 19th century she was seen as a cult icon of ‘sapphism’ (‘Sapphic passion’ was a phrase used to describe lesbianism). Her tragic martyrdom and execution added to her appeal as a gay icon.

What is a ‘Friend of Dorothy’?

Friend of Dorothy (or FOD) is a colloquial term for a gay man. The precise origin of this term is unknown. On the one hand it could be a reference to Dorothy Parker the celebrated humorist and critic who was known to have included some gay men in her famous social circle; however it is more likely a reference to the character Dorothy Gale from the musical Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy is characterised as being accepting of those who are different. A particularly relevant example is that of the ‘gentle lion’ living a lie. The lion is quoted as saying ‘I’m afraid there’s no denyin’, I’m just a dandy lion.’ Judy Garland is also celebrated as a gay icon in her own right, both for her tragic life and for being a human rights advocate.

Another interesting connection between Dorothy Gale and gay culture is the rainbow flag. The rainbow flag is thought to be partly inspired by her song ‘Over the Rainbow’. Her performance of this song is often described as the ‘‘sound of the closet’’ speaking to conflicted gay men. The rainbow flag is often used as a sign of diversity, inclusiveness, hope and of yearning; qualities both Judy Garland and Dorothy Gale exhibited.

Do many gay celebrities fear coming out will damage their careers?

Coming out of the closet has a reputation for being analogous to ‘career suicide’. Celebrities who chose to stay in the closet pay a heavy personal price in their relationships.

Not only does it make the life of the celebrity stressful, it also puts the person they are in a relationship with under a huge amount of pressure and secrecy, something most open gay people will not want after battling with their own experiences of the closet; nobody wants to go back there.

But it can lead to bigger and better things. Ellen came out while she was still an actress and stand up comedienne and her career in those roles ended. However, it led to her having her own daytime TV show and she sits among the ranks of legends such as Oprah. She is now a gay icon who puts LGBT activism at the top of her agenda (when she is not doing dance dares!).

In conclusion, I think that to be a gay icon (LGBT or not) means to promote equality, inclusion, diversity and to give those in tough situations hope for the future. In the words of Cindy Lauper,

But I see your true colors

Shining through

I see your true colors

And that’s why I love you

So don’t be afraid to let them show

Your true colors

True colors are beautiful,

Like a rainbow

Thanks for reading.


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8 Responses to What Does it Mean to Be a ‘Gay Icon’?

  1. Another gay icon is Barbra Streisand. Gays love her almost as much as Judy Garland. Those two were the most famous ones when I was a young(ish) gay man in the 1960′s. If you visited almost any gay person’s home back then, you would hear those two ladies.

  2. Great article Tom! It is interesting, because as of late, it seems like coming out of the closet is actually becoming a career booster for many. Obviously there was Ellen, who recovered her career and is now very successful. However, consider Neil Patrick Harris, he went from a child star, to a very successful adult career, much of which occurred after he came out. Once he revealed himself as gay (while simultaneously playing the most heterosexual male on television), his popularity skyrocketed. Even more recent, ‘White Collar’ star Matt Bomer came out, and he has remained consistent, without any backlash or hatred.

    I honestly feel the age of networks dropping television shows because of gays or lesbians (ala Ellen) is starting to pass. In fact, it has sort of become trendy to be openly accepting of gays and lesbians, as it tends to bring in attention and headlines (think recent JCPenney & Chevy ads). While the goal of bringing in attention isn’t the most noblest reason to support the LGBT community, in my opinion it still helps to show Hollywood, corporations, and public figures are supporting the rights of an underrepresented demographic.

    • Thanks! Yeah, I am really pleased that so many TV shows have gay story lines now (which are in fact embraced positively by critics and the public) eg. Teddy on 90210, Max on Happy Endings, Mitchell and Cam in Modern Family.

      They all do the job of making homosexuality more recognised and with that comes more acceptance (the youth are VERY accepting of minorities in my experience)

      I hope schools become more involved in educating children about homosexuality and gay history too!

  3. Hi Tom,
    Th most complimentary comment I can make about your piece is that I enlarged my knowledge base as a result of reading your most interesting snippet of social history. I thank you sincerely for that!

  4. Hey Tom,
    thank you for Marie Antoinette and the FOD. Both was news to me. By the way, which part did you sing in Les Miserables anniversary?

    • Thank you! Oh, I wasn’t in that, I just really love the musical! However, I just got a call back for my school’s production and I have to sing ‘Stars’! (There were 170 applicants for 50 spaces, so I am really chuffed (I would love to be Thenardier!)).

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