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A gay icon is a historical figure, celebrity or public figure who is embraced by many within lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities; Dykon, a portmanteau of "dyke" and "icon," has recently entered the lexicon to describe lesbian icons.

Qualities of a gay icon often include glamour, flamboyance, strength through adversity, and androgyny. Such icons may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or transgendered; they may also be closeted or open with their sexual orientation and gender identity. Although most gay icons have given their support to LGBT social movements, some have expressed opposition, advocating against a perceived homosexual agenda.

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, typically 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 suicidal figure or the prominent pop culture idol.

Historical examples

The earliest gay icon was Saint Sebastian. The combination of his strong, shirtless physique, the symbolism of the arrows penetrating his body, and the look on his face of rapturous pain have intrigued artists both gay and straight for centuries, and began the first explicitly gay cult in the 19th century. Richard A. Kaye wrote, "contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case." Due to Saint Sebastian's status as gay icon, Tennessee Williams chose to use that name for the martyred character Sebastian in his play, Suddenly, Last Summer. The name was also used by Oscar Wilde—as Sebastian Melmoth—when in exile after his release from prison, as is Little Britain character Sebastian, tortured in his unreturned love for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdommarker. Wilde—Irish author, humorist and "dandy"—was about as "out of the closet" as was possible for the late 1800s, and is himself considered to be a gay icon.

Marie Antoinette was an early lesbian icon. Rumors about her relationships with women had been circulated in pornographic detail by anti-royalist pamphlets before the French Revolution. In Victorian England, biographers who idealized the Ancien Régime made a point of denying the rumors, but at the same time romanticized Marie Antoinette's "sisterly" friendship with the Princesse de Lamballe as—in the words of an 1858 biography—one of the "rare and great loves that Providence unites in death." By the end of the 19th century she was a cult icon of "sapphism;" her execution, seen as tragic martyrdom, may have added to her appeal. Allusions to her appear in early 20th century lesbian literature, most notably Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, where the gay playwright Jonathan Brockett describes Marie Antoinette and de Lamballe as "poor souls... sick to death of the subterfuge and pretenses." She had crossover appeal as a gay icon as well, at least for Jean Genet, who was fascinated by her story. He included a reenactment of her execution in his 1947 play The Maids.

Modern examples

Modern gay icons in entertainment include both film stars and musicians, most of whom have strong, distinctive personalities, and many of whom died young or under tragic circumstances. These individuals may be homosexual or heterosexual, closeted or out, and male or female. The women most commonly portrayed by drag queens are usually gay icons.Lesbian icons are most often powerful women who are, or are rumored to be, lesbian or bisexual. However, a few male entertainers have also had iconic status for lesbians. James Dean was an early lesbian icon who, along with Marlon Brando, influenced the butch look and self-image in the 1950s and after. One critic has argued for Johnny Cash as a minor lesbian icon, attributing his appeal to "lesbian identification with troubled and suffering masculinity." Science fiction author Forrest J Ackerman was dubbed an "honorary lesbian" for his help during the early days of the Daughters of Bilitis. He also wrote lesbian-themed fiction under the pseudonym Laurajean Ermayne.

The definition of what it means to be a "gay icon" has come under criticism in recent years for a lack of substance, as Paul Flynn of The Guardian comments "the concept of gay icon is a cheap ticket...[and] the idea of gay iconography itself is currently replaceable with the idea of popularity and the ability to carry a strong, identifiable, signature look". Author Michael Thomas Ford depicts a similar attitude in his work of fiction, Last Summer.

Though the term "gay icon" is most commonly seen in the United States, the concept is to be found in other cultures, as well. Dalida, the Egyptian singer of Italian origin, had a career-long gay following that extended out of Paris and well into the Middle East. In the years since her death, her iconic status has not diminished. Likewise, Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan was recently declared to be a gay icon in a national poll in India. Though homosexuality still carries a stigma in India, he was quoted as saying that "Appreciation and love from any quarter is welcome," and that though he is straight, himself, he was comfortable with having a large fan base among gay men. In the Netherlandsmarker, Willeke Alberti is widely embraced as a gay icon, due to a combination of her song repertoire, her durability, and her performances in support of manifold gay causes. Spanish actress Carmen Maura, Italian singer Mina, Scottish pop singer Jimmy Somerville, German singer-songwriter Marianne Rosenberg and English singer Dusty Springfield are also considered to be gay icons.Latin American figures have also gained reputations as gay icons. Gloria Trevi is considered a gay icon especially after her release of Todos Me Miran ("They all watch me") featuring a rejected gay man turned drag queen, but had been popular with the gay and lesbian community in Mexico since the beginnings of her career for being a controversial and powerful singer. Paulina Rubio, has been a gay icon for Latin America after supporting gay marriage and publicly stating she wants to have sex with Madonna.

In entertainment


The 1930s saw a number of writers, political activists, and celebrities garner reputations as gay icons. Poet and satirical writer Dorothy Parker reportedly had a large gay following. Though the phrase "friend of Dorothy" was made popular in later years by Judy Garland's role in the The Wizard Of Oz, some speculate it originated with Parker.
Actress Bette Davis' performance in Dark Victory (1939), was dubbed by Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick as "the epistemology of the closet". Davis' portrayal of the melodramatic Judith Traherne made her talent for playing someone with a secret revered and her "camp-worthy" dialog reflexive of the "flamboyant gay queen of the dramatic arts". Ed Sikov, author of Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, comments twentieth century gay men developed their own subculture following Davis' example.

In Marcella Althaus-Reid's Liberation Theology and Sexuality, Marlene Dietrich, who is considered to be the first German-born actress to receive critical acclaim in Hollywood, is a model of liberation and subversion, as well as beauty, perfection and sensuality. In Rio de Janeiromarker, Althaus-Reid discovered a statue of Dietrich dressed as Nossa Senhora de Aparecida in a gay bar in Copacabanamarker beach. The image of Dietrich as the black Virgin Mary represents her overcoming duality. According to Althaus-Reid, it is a figure which sanctifies Dietrich while simultaneously liberating Mary. Other icons from this time period include actor Cary Grant, who endured speculation over his alleged relationships with men, Marilyn Monroe, and openly gay actor and composer Noel Coward.


An archetypal gay icon is Judy Garland. Michael Bronski, author of Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility, describes Garland as "the quintessential pre-Stonewall gay icon". So revered is she as a gay icon that her best known film role, that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, became used as code among homosexuals in the 1950s. The expression, "Is he a friend of Dorothy?" was slang for, "Is he gay?" The character Dorothy met an odd group of friends during her journey through Oz—the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow—and so referring to an individual as a "friend of Dorothy" meant that they were "unusual or odd" and thus "queer". Though Garland has been noted for her embodiment of camp in her acting roles, Bronski argues that she was the "antithesis of camp" and "made a legend of her pain and oppression." As Bronski observes, the bleak setting of 1950s Hollywood had replaced the "sauciness of the 30s and the independence of the 40s". Garland, as well as Lana Turner and Susan Hayward, epitomized the idea that "suffering was the price of glamor...[and] the women stars of the 50s reflected the condition of many gay men: they suffered, beautifully". Garland's reputation as a gay icon has also generated interest in the ex-gay movement. In the book, A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, authors Joseph Nicolosi and Linda Ames Nicolosi argue icons such as Garland give "prehomosexual boys (as well as gay men)" a form of escapism.

Gay men are invariably captivated by larger-than-life feminine images, and they do not choose men as their icons. Instead, they become enthralled with Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Bette Davis, and Bette Midler (tough, assertive, "phallic" women) or Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Princess Di (tragic, misunderstood women). As children, they are captivated by images of Pocahontas, the Little Mermaid and Cinderella. Adulation of female icons permits an escape into the secret feminine fantasy of childhood, providing an evasion to escape the challenge of developing their masculine potential.

Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli would later follow in her mother's footsteps as a gay icon, as would fellow musical artist Barbra Streisand. Joan Crawford has been described as the "ultimate gay icon — the martyr who suffered for her art, and therefore enabled herself to bond with this all-important faction of her fan-base". In Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, author Lawrence J. Quirk explains that Crawford appealed to gay men because they sympathized with her struggle for success; in both the entertainment industry and in her personal life. Though Crawford had been a notable film star during the 1930s and 1940s, according to David Bret, author of joan crawford: Hollywood Martyr, it was not until her 1953 film Torch Song that she was seen as a "complete gay icon, primarily because it was shot in color". Bret further explains that seeing the actress' red hair, dark eyes and 'Victory Red' lips linked her to "gaydom's other sirens: Dietrich, Garland, Bankhead, Piaf, and new recruits Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas".

Lucille Ball is also a prominent icon from this period. In Lee Tannen's book I Loved Lucy: My Friendship with Lucille Ball, the author describes his experience when he witnessed Lucille Ball being labeled a gay icon for the first time by a mutual friend. Ball was told of the adoration she received from gay men, as a bar in West Hollywoodmarker was known for routinely playing episodes of her television series I Love Lucy every weekend. In an interview with Out magazine, Tannen expressed his opinion that Ball's television character Lucy Ricardo was the true gay icon, as "Lucy Ricardo was the underdog who was always trying to prove herself, and I think many gay men can identify with that." Other icons from this time include Liberace, Julie Andrews, Shirley Bassey, Debbie Reynolds, Barbara Cook, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor.


The first gay icon of the underground gay disco scene in the 1970s was the "Queen of Disco" Donna Summer, whose dance songs became anthems for the clubbing gay community. Her number one single "Love to Love You Baby"—regarded as an "absolute disco epic"—not only became a gay anthem because of its "unabridged sexuality", it brought European-oriented disco to the United States and influenced the course the recording industry would take in the following years. However, Summer became immersed in controversy when, after becoming a born-again Christian during the 1980s at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, she was reported as saying homophobic remarks, including that "AIDS was God's punishment to homosexuals". She was subsequently abandoned by the gay community.

During the mid-1980s, many statements denying these circulating rumors were issued by Summer's publicist and she was supported by some within the recording industry and the gay community. Summer, however, never issued any statements herself until several years later. In a 1989 interview with The Advocate, Summer stated a number of people she has worked with throughout her career are openly gay and she has never judged them for it; "I don't look at people by their sexual orientation. I don't judge people because they are gay or straight. My love for people is based on my compassion as a person". Fellow disco singer Gloria Gaynor was embraced by the gay community because of her single "I Will Survive", which served as an anthem for both feminists and the Gay Rights movement.

Singer/actress Bette Midler also became recognized as a gay icon in the 1970s. After performing on Broadwaymarker, Bette began performing at the Continental Bathsmarker, a gay bathhouse in the city, where she became close to her piano accompanist, Barry Manilow, who produced her first major album, The Divine Miss M, in 1973.

Other artists particularly embraced by the gay community during the '70s and '80s included Diana Ross, Grace Jones, Charo, Elaine Paige,, and Dolly Parton. Two gay Britons, writer Quentin Crisp and singer Freddie Mercury of Queen also became popular icons, as well as a bisexual Briton, David Bowie. Elton John also became a gay icon in his own right during this decade, a status strengthened during the 1990s (see below).

Disco and popular music singer and actress Cher became notable in the gay community not only for her music, but for her portrayal of a lesbian in Silkwood, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. In later years, her daughter Chastity Bono came out as a lesbian at the age of seventeen, much to her mother's initial feelings of "guilt, fear and pain". When Cher was able to accept her daughter's sexual orientation, she realized that Chastity, as well as other LGBT people "didn't have the same rights as everyone else, [and she] thought that was unfair". Cher emerged not only as an icon among LGBT people, but also a role model for straight parents who have gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender children. She became the keynote speaker for the 1997 national Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) convention. Cher's longevity in the music industry has often been credited to her gay following. William J. Mann, author of Gay Pride: A Celebration of All Things Gay and Lesbian, comments "[w]e'll be dancing to a ninety-year old Cher when we're sixty. Just watch".

Continuing into the 1980s, pop music singer Madonna—dubbed "Queen of Pop" and "Queen of Dance" by the media, and later the "World's Most Successful Female Recording Artist" by Guinness World Records—became the preeminent gay icon of the late 20th century. The Advocate's Steve Gdula commented "[b]ack in the 1980s and even the early 1990s, the release of a new Madonna video or single was akin to a national holiday, at least among her gay fans". Gdula also stated that during this period, concurrent with the rise of the AIDS epidemic, "when other artists tried to distance themselves from the very audience that helped their stars to rise, Madonna only turned the light back on her gay fans and made it burn all the brighter". Georges-Claude Guilbert, author of Madonna As Postmodern Myth: How One Star's Self-Construction Rewrites Sex, Gender, Hollywood and the American Dream, writes that Madonna's reverence as a gay icon is equated with that of Judy Garland, noting similarities between the two popular culture icons. Guilbert dictates that gay icons "usually belong to one or the other of two types of female stars: either the very vulnerable or suicidal star, or the strong idol whom nobody or nothing resists, like Madonna". According to Madonna: An Intimate Biography, the pop star has always been aware that her most loyal fans were gay men, and has appeared in "gay-oriented magazines as an activist for gay rights and was even named in the book The Gay 100 as one of the most influential gay people in history". Madonna has acknowledged her bisexuality, and her relationships with women—in particular a rumored sexual relationship with Sandra Bernhard—have generated much media speculation.

Other superstar recording artists, such as Cyndi Lauper followed. Lauper and Madonna were seen as trailblazers of women's sexual liberation. Lauper's 1983 debut album She's So Unusual generated a large following of fans responding to the "gay-friendly camp and lesbian-friendly womyn power epitomized in [her] femme anthem "Girls Just Want to Have Fun". Lauper explained that growing up during the 1960s influenced her dedication to fair and equal treatment of all people, noting that the music of the 1960s "helped to open the world’s point of view to change". According to Lauper "It wasn’t until my sister came out in the early ’70s that I became more aware of the bigoted slurs and the violence against a community of people...who were gay". Lauper has since become an active Gay Rights activist, often encouraging LGBT people and their allies to vote for equal rights. Political activism for LGBT rights is the theme of Lauper's annual True Colors Tour.

In the mid- to late-1980s Oprah Winfrey emerged as an icon for the gay community with an intimate confessional communication style that altered the cultural landscape. According to the book Freaks Talk Back by Yale sociologist Joshua Gamson, the tabloid talk show genre, popularized by Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue, did more to make gays mainstream and socially acceptable than any other development of the 20th century by providing decades of high-impact media visibility for sexual nonconformists. Ellen DeGeneres cast Winfrey to play the therapist she comes out of the closet to on the controversial episode of her Ellen sitcom. Though Winfrey abandoned her tabloid talk show format in the mid 1990s as the genre became flooded by more extreme clones like Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones and Jerry Springer, she continued to broadcast shows that were perceived as gay-friendly. Her show Oprah's Big Give was the first reality TV show with an openly gay host, Nate Berkus. Her own show has been nominated several times for GLAAD Media Awards, winning one in 2007.

Winfrey's iconic status among gay males has entered the popular culture. One of the stars of the reality TV show The Benefactor was a gay African American man named Kevin who was so obsessed with Winfrey that he would ask "What would Oprah do?" before making any strategic decision.

Other icons from this decade include Estelle Getty, Michael Teckman and Bea Arthur, Joan Collins, Annie Lennox, Liza Minnelli, and Kylie Minogue.


Janet Jackson, who was twice established as one of the highest paid recording artists in the history of contemporary music during the 1990s, became a gay icon after she released her sixth studio album The Velvet Rope (1997). The album was honored by the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and received the award for Outstanding Music Album at the 9th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in 1998 for its songs that dealt with sexual orientation and homophobia.On April 26, 2008, she received the Vanguard Award—a media award from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—to honor her work in the entertainment industry in promoting equality for LGBT people. GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano commented, "Ms. Jackson has a tremendous following inside the LGBT community and out, and having her stand with us against the defamation that LGBT people still face in our country is extremely significant."Kylie Minogue reinvented herself musically in the 2000s and found herself faced with a renewed increasing gay fan base.

Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, Neil Patrick Harris, k. d. lang, Rosie O'Donnell, and T.R. Knight became gay icons after becoming open about their sexual orientation as media professionals and public figures. Other icons from this decade include Lucy Lawless, Tori Spelling, the Spice Girls, and Peter & Katie Andre. By the late 2000s, several entertainers were dubbed as members of a new generation of gay icons. These include:

In sports

Martina Navratilova, and Billie Jean King are seen as gay icons.

In politics

In the political arena, gay icons are represented by, among others, Princess Diana, Coretta Scott King, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, Winnie Mandela, Michèle Duvalier, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Eva Peron, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Imelda Marcos. Roger Casement, an Irish civil rights activist, became a gay icon of the early twentieth century. Civil rights activist Coretta Scott King was held in high regard among members of the gay community for her involvement in the Gay Rights Movement. During her lifetime, she routinely equated the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, led by her husband Martin Luther King Jr., with the that of LGBT activism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently gained gay icon status after stripping off his shirt and striking several virile poses during a holiday in the Siberian mountains. These individuals have been lionized for their strength, style, compassion, or work for equal rights. An ironic icon is Anita Bryant, as her work has opposed homosexuality. During the 1970s, Bryant led a nation campaign called "Save Our Children", in which she equated homosexuality with child molestation and insisted homosexuals cannot reproduce and therefore must "recruit" or "convert" people to their lifestyle. California State Senator John V Briggs applauded Bryant's work as a "national, religious crusade [and] courageous stand to protect American children from blatant homosexuality". However, as Bruce C. Steele of The Advocate documented, Bryant's crusade against the Gay Rights Movement, in fact, made her synonymous with it.

According to John Coppola, exhibit curator and former head of exhibits at the Smithsonian Institutionmarker in Washington, D.C., "In a completely unintended way, Anita Bryant was about the best thing to happen to the gay rights movement...She and her cohorts were so over the top that it just completely galvanized the gay rights movement". The 30th anniversary of Bryant's campaign against LGBT rights has been commemorated at the Stonewall Library & Archivesmarker, with executive director Jack Rutland dubbing her "The Mother of Gay Rights".

Fictional examples

Several fictional characters have also been regarded as gay icons. Bugs Bunny, a fictional anthropomorphic rabbit appearing in animation by Warner Bros. Cartoons during the Golden Age of American animation—dubbed the greatest cartoon character of all time by TV Guide—has been declared a "queer cultural icon [and] parodic diva" due to his "cross-dressing antics" and camp appeal.

Homosexual interpretations of Batman and the original Robin Dick Grayson have been an interest in cultural and academic study, due primarily to psychologist Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954). In the mid-1950s, Werthman led a national campaign against comic books, convincing Americans that they were responsible for corrupting children and encouraging them to engage in acts of sex and violence. In relation to Batman and Robin, Wertham asserted "the Batman type of story helps to fixate homoerotic tendencies by suggesting the form of an adolescent-with-adult or Ganymede-Zeus type of love-relationship". In Containing America: Cultural Production and Consumption in Fifties America, authors Nathan Abrams and Julie Hughes point out that homosexual interpretations of Batman and Robin existed prior to Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham claimed his book was, in fact, prompted by the earlier research of a Californian psychiatrist.

Superman has also become a gay icon.

One of the TV series that appeals most to LGBT culture is the 1960s sitcom Bewitched. Aside from the campy characterizations, it contained two gay cast members (Dick Sargent and Paul Lynde). Star Elizabeth Montgomery and Sargent were grand marshals of a Los Angelesmarker gay pride parade in the early 1990s.


Many celebrities have responded positively to being regarded as gay icons. Several have noted the loyalty of their gay fans; Eartha Kitt and Cher credited gay fans with keeping them going at times when their careers had faltered. Kylie Minogue has acknowledged the perception of her as a gay icon and has performed at such events as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Grasmarker. Asked to explain the reason for her large gay fanbase Minogue replied, "It's always difficult for me to give the definitive answer because I don't have it. My gay audience has been with me from the beginning... they kind of adopted me." She noted that she differed from many gay icons who were seen as tragic figures, with the comment, "I've had a lot of tragic hairdos and outfits. I think that makes up for it!"

Former wife of shamed televangelist Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye Messner (an unlikely gay icon who was called "the ultimate drag queen") — said in her last interview with Larry King that, "When I went — when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that."

Others have been more ambivalent. Mae West, a gay icon from the early days of her career, supported gay rights but bristled when her performance style was referred to as camp. Judy Garland gained iconic status in part by acknowledging gay fans' existence at a time when few would, but her attitude toward her gay following was ambiguous.

Madonna has acknowledged and embraced her gay following throughout her career, she even made several references to the gay community in her songs or performances, and performed at several gay clubs. She has declared in interviews that some of her best friends are gay and that she adores gays and refers to herself as "the biggest gay icon of all times." She also has been quoted in television interviews in the early 1990s as declaring the "big problem in America at the time was homophobia."

Turkish electronic pop singer Hande Yener describes the her relationship with gay audience as "There is a strong bond between us." She states that she tries new styles in her carrier and her stand against prejudices is best understood by gay audience. She also mentioned that she often goes to gay clubs. She starred as herself, a gay icon in a gay themed movie Kraliçe Fabrikada. She is one of the few singers who performs in a gay club. She has participated to the İstanbul Gay Pride 2009.

See also



  • Frightening the Horses: Gay Icons of the Cinema, Eric Braun (2002). ISBN 1-903111-10-2
  • 20th Century Icons-Gay, Graham Norton (2001). ISBN 1-899791-77-9
  • Gay histories and cultures, George E. Haggerty (2000). ISBN 0-8153-1880-4
  • The Culture of Queers, Richard Dyer (2002). ISBN 0-415-22376-8

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