What Is a Gay Icon?

If you're a friend of Dorothy, are you duty-bound to idolize Judy Garland? If you're not the marrying kind, are you genetically predisposed to find Joan Crawford a role model? And if you bat for the other team, why should an adaptation of a 34-year-old documentary about two crazy-cat ladies living in a crumbling, raccoon-infested Hamptons pile send shivers of ecstasy up and down your hotblooded homo spine? (Article continued below...)

"Grey Gardens" is not a gay movie, but there is no question that it has a huge and loyal fan base among those of us who enjoy same-sex stimulus plans. But why? Is there a gay-icon awards committee? Do shaved-headed lawyers in Dolce & Gabbana swimming trunks carry black briefcases full of votes to some unmarked gay bar where John Waters, Russell Simmons and Cher mull over the merits of the homo-nees? Do Ethel Merman and Rock Hudson welcome new inductees to the Gay Hall of Fame with vodka cranberries and power bars? Oh, my, I wish. But it's not like that. Spotting a gay icon is like being double-jointed or riding a unicycle: to laymen it is imperceptible, but to gay men it's like, well, duh.

It's actually pretty simple: gay men of a certain age have an affinity to people who, like them, have faced adversity, and who, like them, have had to fight to become the person they want to be. This adversity could be drugs; it could be a propensity for making the wrong choices in men; it could be fictional adversity, as in the kinds of roles a certain actress always portrays (Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce," "Johnny Guitar," etc.). Or it could be a smothering mother like Big Edie. Our icons tend to be vulnerable but strong in the face of adversity. Oh, and like Little Edie—whose combination of penury, mental instability and stress-induced hair loss leads her to wear her sweater on her head—they are always stylish in battle. You get a sense of the complete package at the end of HBO's "Grey Gardens." Little Edie, her mother dead and her Hamptons prison gone, performs a raucous and idiosyncratic cabaret act in Greenwich Village—think your batty aunt on Ecstasy singing loud karaoke and wearing something that Shirley Bassey's tailor hadn't gotten around to finishing. And yet she's reveling in the freedom to be herself at last. Here's hoping we all get that lucky.

I mention gay men of a certain age because I have found that the type of icon has changed as the years and, to a certain extent, the prejudices have gone by. Nowadays, gay icons tend to be heavier on the fabulousness factor than on the conquering-adversity thing. Kelly Clarkson's battle with her record company to allow her inner rocker to shine through seems the biggest struggle that the Beyoncé brigade has to contend with. That said, even today most gay people will have lived some of their lives in an environment where their true selves are not tolerated. Let's not forget every gay person in America is living in a country where their government does not consider them to be worthy of the same rights as any straight person, so you can understand why being able to identify with your tribe is a joyous and liberating thing. If there is a smugness, an exclusion in the anointing of gay icons while others may not even guess that they resonate with us, perhaps it's because for so long we have been accustomed to secrets, codes and a need to feel that there is something we have that is special and unique.

But here's my beef: isn't the slavish devotion to certain figures by a whole community slightly menacing and spooky, even fascistic? By wearing the same clothes, having the same haircut, listening to the same music and worshiping the same icons, you are not just wearing a uniform but becoming it. The creativity and individuality that were once associated with being "different" are watered down or, to co-opt a word, homo-genized. We all want to belong in some way. But the need to create a gay culture has also led gay people to self-ghettoize.

So: can we stop the gay thing? I would like to advocate replacing the word "gay" with "queer" when talking in broad terms about our collective experience. Queer isn't just about same-sex wedding tackle. Queer is about sensibility. You don't need to be gay to be queer. Indeed, some of the queerest people I know are straight. My mum is a bit queer. Obama is definitely queer. Little Edie Beale was very queer. I think if more people embraced their queerness, we'd all be the better for it.