There are no hard-and-fast rules about what makes someone a “gay icon”—so how is it possible that queers generally reach such strong consensus about the celebrities who are meaningful to the LGBTQ community?
Somehow, without there ever being an official vote, we’ve come to accept that gay men adore Barbra Streisand and Cher. Kelly Clarkson has so many lesbian fans there’s a term for them (“kezbos”). And then of course there are celebs who are openly queer, like Wanda Sykes and George Takei.
In fact, thanks to the ever-growing number of celebrities who feel comfortable coming out, we have more living queer icons in 2017 than ever before. A decade or two ago, gay men tended to be limited to divas if they wanted a celebrity role model—now they have wrestlers like Darren Young and reporters like Anderson Cooper to look up to.
Why Do Openly Gay Celebrities Matter?
These figures are meaningful because we’re all accustomed to seeing queer figures marginalized, mocked or closeted by mainstream media. Despite the growing visibility, queers still seldom get to see themselves as main characters. (Back in 2015, there was an uproar when a few people suggested that James Bond might be gay at some point in the future.) So when we see a queer person who’s achieved success, power and respect, it means a lot. That’s why queers are so protective of folks like Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.
But what about the icons who aren’t queer—people like Cher, Diana Ross and Madonna? Those straight allies have been speaking to the LGBTQ community for decades, as when Madonna paid tribute to voguing (or, depending on your point of view, stole it); or when Diana Ross recorded the anthem “I’m Coming Out.” Bette Midler earned legions of gay fans by performing in bathhouses with Barry Manilow. By aligning themselves with a queer aesthetic, those artists sent a signal to gay fans, letting them know that they’re all part of the same big gay tribe.
What Makes a Gay Ally?
Sometimes a figure doesn’t even need to blow the the gay dog whistle very loudly. Dame Judi Dench, Julie Andrews, Meryl Streep, Joan Collins, Carol Channing—they aren’t exactly known for chasing queer audiences, and yet gay men seem to love them.
That’s probably because they’re all women with a track record of playing powerful roles—and, crucially, roles that challenge straight male authority. By upending traditional gender roles and defying expectations of male and female behavior, they’ve essentially volunteered for icon-status among queer people.
The best thing about all of the people mentioned in this article: as of the start of 2017, they’re all still alive, along with countless other icons like Betty White, Neil Patrick Harris, Carol Kane, Dolly Parton, Paul Reubens and Harvey Fierstein. And while of course they won’t be alive forever, we can count our lucky stars that we get to live at a time when we can enjoy their ongoing creative output.
After all, as Liza Minnelli (the daughter of the ultimate gay icon) once sang, “From cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.” We’ll all be corpses one day, so let’s make the most of the time we’ve got together.