Charlotte Church is a famous British opera-pop singer. Not yet in her twenties, her angelic voice has been lauded around the world. Her albums have sold in the millions, rare for someone who primarily sings in a genre that is not considered top-40 material. And she is a gay icon.
That’s right. Attitude, the top-selling British gay lifestyle magazine, put Ms. Church on its June 2005 cover and crowned her the “crown princess of gay icons”. This was primarily due to her transformation of late, from an angelic Welsh good girl to tabloid princess extraordinaire (legal battles with her ex-boyfriend, dating a Welsh rugby stud, and looking like a cheap slut). If that transformation were the criterium to becoming a gay icon, then millions of girls the world over (famous or not) would fit the bill. To make matters worse, Attitude followed up the article with a piece on other prospective gay icons. Most of them were British, but there were mentions of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and even Marcia Cross’ “Desperate Housewives” character Bree van de Kamp. I put down the magazine after reading the latter the part. And I screamed.
I bring up this ridiculous piece of glossy gay journalism to illustrate a trend that has only become serious in the past few years: despite the growing number of out GLBT celebrities, the bulk of our gay icons are heterosexuals. For those of you who don’t know what a gay icon is, let me tell you: a gay icon is someone who is held in a ridiculously high regard by persons in the GLBT community. Often, these lauders are gay men. Many cite camp sensibilities and innate connections as justification for this. With a few exceptions, celebrities from the golden age of Hollywood (1930s-1940s) onward have reached gay icon status. Standard gay icons have included Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Cher, and Madonna. Men like Marlon Brando and James Dean have also been mentioned as such.
It is important to know that almost all the gay icons out there are nominally heterosexual men and women. Madonna has flirted with lesbianism before (Sandra Bernhard and Ingrid Casares), and Joan Crawford did try to bed Marilyn Monroe and even contemplated doing Greta Garbo, but these women eventually married men. Most importantly, the socio-political climate of back in the day made it impossible for someone to come out and maintain a career after the fact. There were a few big-time celebrities who, while never making public declarations of their sexualities, made it clear (deliberately or not) that they were not straight, such as Paul Lynde and Liberace.
While I do appreciate the charms of Judy Garland and her fellow gay icon brothers and sisters, and while I do understand why there were almost no out gay celebrities back then, I fail to understand why their supposed successors are even being touted as such. Yes, Charlotte Church has talent, but as for the vast crop of gay icons in the making, their skills are virtually nil. Worse, almost all of these people have nothing to offer the gay community.
An example is Jessica Simpson. The songstress is blonde, pretty, and has a hot husband. But she will never be a real gay icon, despite Out magazine naming her as such in their June 2005 issue. Her credentials are lacking on two counts: she is a noted supporter of George W. Bush (why would a prospective gay icon support someone whose policies are putting queers at a deficit?), and she threw her above-average singing talent (lower than Christina but way higher than Britney) away in favor of that reality show “Newlyweds”. She is more famous for being a dumb blonde than for what her initial bread and butter was. Say what you will about Joan Crawford whacking her daughter with a wire hanger, at least she did not sacrifice her career for something as trivial as a reality show.
If that wasn’t enough, there are straight men with good bodies and little else that are being touted as gay icons. You will not believe how many gay men have blogs that have pictures of shirtless Paul Walker and David Beckham! Gaywired.com has a feature called “Hot To Trot”, which lists the ten hottest guys of the month, as voted on by Gaywired’s patrons. One almost never sees even an F-list out gay or bisexual man. As of this writing, the aforementioned Mr. Walker is atop the list. The guy can’t act his way out of a paper bag. And I thought that gay men were supposed to have taste!
What does it say about our community when we don’t view out gay people in the spotlight the same way we view straights? We have real out gay icons, such as Elton John, George Michael, Melissa Etheridge, and Ellen DeGeneres. But their successes do not change the fact that unless things change, it will be predominantly straight people who become the gay icons of note.
I am not advocating for a boycott of straight icons. God forbid. I just find it sad that this is the 21st century, and with all the visibility that we have in the media, and with a wealth of GLBT talent out there, we tend to prefer people who may have questionable intents pertaining to us. Why can’t Rufus Wainwright and Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters grace the blogs and the bedrooms of gay boys with as much fervency as Mr. Beckham and Ryan Carnes (a staunch Christian who has appeared on “Desperate Housewives” and “General Hospital”)? Gina Gershon (“Bound”, “Showgirls”, and “Prey for Rock & Roll” notwithstanding) is not a lesbian, but many a dyke would take her over real dykes like Jenny Shimizu and Amelie Mauresmo.
I guess that I shouldn’t be mad at other people in the community. Our victories and progresses notwithstanding, it is still difficult for gay people to come out and maintain some sort of positive celebrity, especially if you’re a man. Even if you are not a celebrity, you can still be killed for being queer. And like everyone else, the media has conditioned us mere mortals to value image over substance. But that does not mean that there isn’t room for change. Compared to a few decades ago, these are our halcyon days, and we need more out celebrities of all types to reinforce that sentiment. It was fine when Judy Garland was around, but we didn’t have any out stars back then. Now, we deserve better. And the likes of Charlotte Church, Gina Gershon, and Ryan Carnes just will not cut the mustard.