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Saturday, June 11, 2022

June 11-12, 2022: LGBTQ Icons

[June 10th would have been Judy Garland’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Garland’s performances, leading up to this special weekend post on Garland and a few other LGBTQ icons.]

On AmericanStudies takeaways from how and why Garland and other artists became LGBTQ icons.

1)      Garland: There are undoubtedly lots of factors that have combined to make Garland “The Elvis of homosexuals” (per The Advocate), and as with all of today’s subjects, I don’t have the space to get into them at length. Instead, I wanted to note one particular and very telling detail: that for many decades (dating back at least to the World War II era), gay men in particular would refer to themselves as “Friends of Dorothy” in order to secretly connect with other gay men. Which is to say, icons like Garland don’t just become part of the cultural landscape for oppressed communities—they can also and perhaps especially serve as a means of navigation and survival within an all-too hostile society.

2)      Cher: Cher has become particularly linked to the 21st century LGBTQ rights movement through her evolving relationship with and support for her son Chaz Bono, a transgender man; but as this interview reflects, she’s felt connected to the movement and LGBTQ identities throughout her life. What’s most telling for me in that interview is the idea of a shared experience of not quite fitting in—a perspective on themselves and the world that many artists share, often from a young age, and might explain all five of today’s subjects among many others.

3)      Diana Ross: That hyperlinked article highlights a handful of reasons for the legendary singer’s status as an LGBTQ icon, but to my mind it all boils down to one: her 1980 song “I’m Coming Out.” That song’s co-writers, Chic bandmates Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, fully intended the song to serve as an LGBTQ anthem, with Rodgers noting in a recent video that they believed the song could have “the same power as James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.’” But it took more than the writing to make the song happen and a hit—it took the participation and immense talent of Ross, one of the towering figures in 20th century American popular culture. That was no small thing in 1980, and worth icon status to be sure.

4)      Madonna: Again, that hyperlinked article traces many stages of Madonna’s career, both overall and as an LGBTQ icon, including the way in which her connection to and celebration of a longstanding trend like “Voguing” helped bring musical and dance counter-cultures into mainstream spaces. But what stands out most to me is her friendship with and support for artist and activist Keith Haring, during a time when (as Madonna herself notes in the first post in that series of memories) far too many people refused even to touch doorknobs after an HIV-infected person like Haring used them. It takes cultural figures to help move the needle, and in that and many other ways Madonna helped do so when it came to AIDS.

5)      Elizabeth Taylor: But no one, and I mean no one, did more for the early fight against both the stigmas and the horrific realities of AIDS than did legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor started her AIDS Foundation in 1991, and she spent much of the remaining two decades of her life fundraising, supporting efforts and activisms of all kinds, and giving interviews like the one featured in this 1992 Vanity Fair profile. Those twenty years of work led to the honorary title “The Joan of Arc of AIDS”; and without taking a single thing away from Garland’s own relationship with the LGBTQ community, I think Joan of Arc is an even more powerful symbol than Elvis, making Taylor perhaps the most influential of all five of these inspiring subjects.

Beach Reads series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other icons or allies you’d highlight?

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