What makes a gay icon?

So, I was just listening to Kylie on the radio - or at least I thought I was, but it turned out to be Madonna. And it got me thinking that while I know they’re both gay icons, I don’t know why. Aside from them both being female pop singers they don’t seem to have much in common, so what is it? Why Kylie and Madonna and not say, Annie Lennox (or is she and I’m just ill-informed?)

Judy Garland was a gay icon, what about Julie Andrews? Or Shirley MacLaine? What are the common factors, if any?


Seriously, for women appealing to gay men it seems to be those song-and-dance performers with a distinctive showbiz flair and a strong confident yet feminine persona. Bonus points if they’ve played one or more characters which hint at an underlying sweet emotional vulnerability underneath the kickass exterior.

For men who appeal to gay men…no, I’m going with “fabulosity” again.

If I can edge further out on this limb before someone saws it off, lesbian icons seem to once again be those talented performers who are confident in who they are. The icons don’t have to be lesbians themselves, although they often are, but the ones I’ve noticed are strong women (or women who come across as strong, perception being key here) who are not threatened by other strong women.

She definitely is.

One thing, I think, is that the artist has to be accepting of their gay fans. I can’t think of a gay icon that was actively hostile to their gay fans (I’d venture to say Michelle Shocked is no longer a gay icon, for instance), and with e.g. Kylie and Madonna as well as others, they actively encourage the fandom, attending Pride events, giving interviews to the Advocate, that sort of thing. I’m not sure how this goes for the older icons - Garland, at least, liked to associate with gays but didn’t do anything particular as a performer to connect with them. But maybe back in the day, friendship was enough.

ETA: are we distinguishing gay from lesbian icons? I didn’t.

Straight musician here. I think of Gay Icons as artists who use persona and showcraft. In some way, it is clear that their performance identity is different from their IRL identity. And their performance identity comes out of craft - you see the effort put into expressing their art. There is an element of Show in their art.

Question to LGBT folks - or at least anyone more in the know than me - is David Bowie considered a gay icon? I wonder - he’s got all the right ingredients, including his supposed-bi phase, etc. But I don’t recall hearing him portrayed that way…

I can think of one: Swedish singer Carola Häggkvist.

Good question. You’d say ‘yes’ because of his showmanship and androgeny, but I wouldn’t, for example, envisage a float of David Bowie impersonaters at gay pride in the same way as we might see a troupe of dancing Dorothy’s. So I don’t think he is, quite.

I disagree with this. Judy Garland may have had gay friends, but the public outside of Hollywood wouldn’t know it. Frankly because there was simply no discussion about sexuality of celebrities in the public domain until pretty recently, unless there was some type of huge scandal involving arrests or something.

I read somewhere, and I don’t know if it’s true, that Alan Ladd was (or perhaps became) a gay icon after Shane, based on a couple of specific scenes. One was when he and Van Heflin (I think) were bare-chested and chopping out a tree stump, and another when he was dressing and checking out the results in a mirror.

Annie Lennox is a lesbian icon - let’s face it, we all thought she was as lesbian in the 80s, so that’s good enough. And she comes from that same era, like Alison Moyet, when female singers formed bands with gay musicians and everyone was pretty androgynous, so she’s a gay icon in terms of being a solid supporter of gay people.

Any strong, capable, all conquering diva gets to be a gay icon. Julie Andrews certainly. And lets’ not leave out Babs.

The gay world is a small, incestuous and gossipy one. If she hung out with gay friends, word would spread fast in GayWorld TM.

Really? Across the country? Across the world?

Even if so, I don’t think it’s necessary to achieving the status of ‘icon’. I think what’s necessary is playing a role, or having a public persona, and having the necessary visibility, that gay people can identify with.

I think David Bowie’s icon demographic kind of just misses gay men and hits those women who are gaga over very androgynous men.

And don’t forget the tragic divas…we LOVE our tragic divas. Judy, Whitney, Marilyn, Joan. More I’m not thinking of at the moment, I’m sure.

Neither Vince Clarke nor Dave Stewart are gay.

Thank you…I knew there was something wrong with that statement when I read it but for some reason couldn’t put my finger on it. Of course, it’s understandable to think Clarke is if you don’t know much about him other than that he was in a couple of 80s bands, given that Andy Bell can pretty much cover the gaaaaay quotient for both of them (and probably every other bandmate Clarke’s ever had, too).

Yeah, I think basically it. I also think they need to be open to being a part of the gay community but I don’t think there’s much more to it.

I will say that for a lot of people in my generation and younger, we recognize the historicity of icons like Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand but we don’t necessarily feel that possessiveness of 'these are our divas. The older icons had huge drag queen fanbases and that filtered through to the rest of the community. While drag queens are still a vibrant and celebrated part of the group, I think there’s just so many people and so many different gay groups that the personalities they favor have less presence nowadays. Certainly, the people I hear about all the time from gay friends are people like Margaret Cho and Darren Criss.

Oh, I definitely used to think Clarke was gay (I also thought this of Martin Gore) but I was wrong. Dave Stewart, though - at the time of the Eurythmics, it was known that he used to be in a relationship with Lennox, and then he was married to Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama, Shakespeare’s Sister)

Judy took “hanging out” with gay guys to the extreme- she MARRIED at least two gay guys. The last one actually got her daughter Liza to marry his boyfriend, Peter Allen.

A combination of great and unique talent, an underdog backstory, and the star has both mainstream appeal and acceptance/appreciation of gay fans.

Example: Dolly Parton

She has great great talent and a unique style, she was born dirt poor and had to fight for everything she has, and she’s as popular with 80 year old retired military and 30 year old waitresses as she is with gay men while making jokes about how if she’d been a boy she’d have been a drag queen and others that make her “aw shucks, people’s people” outlook clear. I think partly it’s a sense of connection and a sense of acceptance by the mainstream (which was super important before gays became more accepted in the past two decades).

Related to above, Donna Summers was another gay icon who fell from favor because of homophobic comments she was alleged to have made at a concert. (There was no recording of the comments and she denied ever making them.) I don’t think it really hurt her career though: her songs could still pack a dance floor.

Then there was the Denver optometrist enigma.

I’ve always considered Bowie “one of us,” if only tangentially, and so excluded him from “gay icon” status. To me, gay icons are allies, but don’t identify as LGBT. Whereas LGBT folk who are respected and admired within the community are more like “gay heroes” or “honorable members” or something. I wonder if others feel this way…

To answer the OP: I think one of the key characteristics of a gay icon is some sort of “otherness” – be it through gender, sexuality, race, class, celebrity, or even negative qualities like addiction or poor mental health, which put the icon outside of normal society. These could be part of an artist’s presentation or persona, or true-to-life. And it would explain why there are so few straight white male gay icons.

Donna Summer deserved her quick fall from Gay icon status, and I think it is safe to assume her zealot religious beliefs were indeed quoted correctly.

Otherwise, if YOU were making a fortune from the Gay market and suddenly you were quoted as having said some truly hateful things about the Gay community, and especially if these “rumors” were not true, wouldn’t you take out a full page ad in the Advocate, and do one interview after another - denying those bigoted, ignorant comments?

Her silence spoke volumes!

Hell, even the current king of bigots, Mel Gibson, tried to retract his hateful comments after he sobered up, but his was caught on video and it was a bit difficult to pretend he didn’t say what he did.

No - Donna Summer took the Gay money when she needed it and it suited her, but then showed her true colors and refused to repudiate a single word, despite repeated requests from Gay and non-Gay press for an interview to clear the air.
There are many ways to become a “Gay Icon” of sorts - many were supportive of the Gay community early in their careers - perhaps appearing at Gay Pride festivals in the parades or on stage. Others have made no secret of their support for Gay Rights. Then there is that harder-to-determine factor that is a combination of timing, over-the-top showmanship, outlandish costumes, perhaps a slightly bitchy, nasty, “fuck you” sense of humor and and attitude that goes along with it.

Cher, Kathy Griffin, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Liza, Ellen DeGeneres and even Joan Rivers would be able to fill a theater with only Gay fans in no time. There are some guys, Elton John, Adam Lambert, Neil Patrick Harris to name a few, who also have a large Gay following. I am sure there are many others I am forgetting, but it does show that being a so-called “Gay Icon” is certainly a good career move, especially at the beginning of a career, but also throughout anyone’s career.