Why Judy Garland Still Captivates Gay Fans 50 Years After Her Death

A fabled link to the Stonewall riots has helped the star’s legacy resonate.
To many in the gay community, Judy Garland is more than just the child star who cemented her role in Hollywood history with 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
To many in the gay community, Judy Garland is more than just the child star who cemented her role in Hollywood history with 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”

A half-century after her death, Judy Garland is returning to the big screen.

Well, sort of. In September, Renée Zellweger will depict Garland during her final days in the much-anticipated biopic “Judy.” In March 2018, audiences got their first look at Zellweger as Garland when the first promotional photo from the film was released.

Much of the chatter, however, focused less on “Judy” being touted as another comeback for the Oscar-winning Zellweger — who most recently made a splash in 2016’s “Bridget Jones’s Baby” — and more on how she will fare in her portrayal of the stage and screen legend.

That a single photograph garnered so many hot takes is, in many respects, a testament to Garland’s enduring legacy. To many in the gay community, Garland is more than just the child star who cemented her role in Hollywood history with 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” or the comeback queen who triumphed at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1961. For them, she’s a pioneering icon who set the standard for other female stars beloved by queer audiences, including Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and, more recently, Lady Gaga.

Over the years, many journalists and historians have tried to analyze the gay adoration of Garland. As Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz,” the singer-actress projected the image of the ultimate girl next door, but her offscreen troubles included failed marriages, financial struggles and, sadly, a drug addiction that claimed her life in 1969.

It’s this contrast, many say, that began captivating gay men in the years when their relationships and rights weren’t recognized.

“She’s kind of like the ultimate comeback kid,” New York–based actor, writer and performer Justin Sayre told HuffPost in 2012. “I think what’s most unique about Judy is that she really communicated, in real terms, the depth of human feeling. For many gay people … we kind of grow up in a world where we’re not allowed to go there a lot of the time.”

Garland aficionado Scott Brogan, who has maintained the popular fan site “The Judy Room” since 1999, echoed those sentiments but stressed that it’s Garland’s outsize talent that continues to set her apart from other stars.

“For me, Judy is not so much a gay thing. It’s more ... I’m just very, very fascinated by her life,” he told HuffPost. “Her highs were really high, and her lows were really low, and yes, she did have a tragic life in certain respects, but it comes back to her voice and her performances.”

Interestingly, Garland played it coy when she was asked directly about her gay following. “I couldn’t care less,” she reportedly said at a 1965 press conference in San Francisco. “I sing to people!”

Two years later, she told TV journalist Irv Kupcinet, “In my audiences, I have little children … many teenagers, then people my age. I’ll be damned if I have my audience mistreated.” (Catch a clip from that interview above.)

One of the most divisive points about Garland’s life among gay fans is her fabled connection to the 1969 Stonewall riots, considered the start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. The uprising took place in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood in the early morning of June 28, less than 24 hours after Garland’s funeral service was held in the city. Given the timing, many have theorized that her death resonated so deeply among gay fans that it inspired those at Stonewall to stand up to a police raid.

Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft visits New York’s Stonewall Inn in 2017.
Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft visits New York’s Stonewall Inn in 2017.
Bruce Glikas / Getty Images

The theory — presented as such in Charles Kaiser’s 1997 book, The Gay Metropolis — has been hotly contested by historians and Stonewall veterans in recent years. Author and journalist Mark Segal (who describes himself as West Village street kid at the time of the riots) blasted the so-called Judy myth as a “disturbing historical liberty” that “trivializes the oppression we were fighting against” and is “downright insulting to the [LGBTQ] community” in a 2015 column for PBS.

Another Stonewall participant, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, felt similarly. Noting that many of the youths involved in the riots would likely have been more interested in rock and R&B than Garland, he told The Washington Post in 2016, “There are people who connect [the funeral] to the narrative of Stonewall, and you’re not going to tell them it doesn’t connect, so let them have it. It didn’t start the riot off, believe me.”

Given the scale of Garland’s funeral, which reportedly drew over 20,000 mourners, Brogan believes the notion that it could have had an impact is a reasonable one, stressing that there’s room for multiple narratives in Stonewall’s layered history.

“I think that there were people there who were upset [by Garland’s death], but it was more than just one thing,” he said. “Sure, a lot of the street kids probably didn’t really care that much. But I think we shouldn’t count out the fact that Judy’s death did play a part. It wasn’t the only reason, of course, but there still were a lot of people there who were just … their nerves were shot.”

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Whether “Judy” will address Garland’s cultural ties to the Stonewall riots in any way won’t be known until the film is released. (Roland Emmerich’s critically maligned 2015 film, “Stonewall,” alluded to it.) Regardless, the biopic comes at a time when her relevance among modern audiences has been called into question — as much as the legacy of a star who died 50 years ago can be questioned, anyway.

A 2012 New York Times article, “The Road Gets Rougher for Judyism’s Faithful,” for instance, referred to “Judyism,” or the gay community’s admiration of Garland, as “little more than a vague cultural memory.” Its writer, Robert Leleux, for whom Garland remains a “patron saint,” cited a discussion he had with a friend who suggested that “A Star Is Born” star has been surpassed in the public’s imagination by the likes of Whitney Houston, Britney Spears and other stars whose private struggles have, at varying times, threatened to eclipse their professional legacies.

“I couldn’t care less. I sing to people!”

- Judy Garland, reportedly, on her gay following

Still, others beg to differ. In 2014, journalist Michael Musto placed Garland ahead of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and others in his ranking of the greatest female gay icons of all time. This month “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner gave Garland a shoutout at the 2018 Tony Awards when the New York production won for best revival of a play, saying, “What kind of homosexual would I be if I didn’t say it’s June 10? Happy birthday, Judy Garland!”

Pointing to the numerous performers, stage plays and career retrospectives that celebrate Garland’s work, as well as the prerelease buzz that “Judy” is enjoying, Brogan said the star still captivates audiences, even if her appeal among gay fans is vastly different today from during her lifetime.

“Our struggles are so different now. It’s not just a struggle to be accepted as gay, because now we’re struggling with equal rights,” he said. “I think that she’s still very relevant, but it’s not so much ‘Oh, she’s our icon because I can relate to the sadness, to the little sparrow flying the storm,’ that kind of thing. Today I think it’s more a celebration of her talent and her brilliance, which I think is a good thing.”

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