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.

-Tom

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