Why Do Gay Men Historically Adopt Female Stars as Their Icons?

In adulthood we discover that other gay men had adopted these women in exactly the same way in childhood. Why do we, as individuals, gravitate to women, even the same women, before we are part of a gay scene, and before we are swept up in any collective gay groupthink?
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Judy Garland in publicity portrait for the film 'The Pirate', 1948. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)
Judy Garland in publicity portrait for the film 'The Pirate', 1948. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

An acquaintance here in San Francisco informed me that these women are not merely icons: These heroines are veritable patron saints!

When a little boy who is destined to grow up straight has a poster of his favorite sports star, superhero, or astronaut on his bedroom wall, we may conclude that he admires and identifies with him and perhaps even wants to be his icon in some way.

But what about me? Did I want to be my female heroines?

I have pondered this phenomenon since I first realized I am gay. As a young child of 10, I would shut myself away during the weekends, curtains closed in the living room, and watch the triple bill of films on Saturday-afternoon BBC TV: Bette Davis. Marilyn Monroe. Judy Garland. Joan Crawford. The judo expert Emma Peel, portrayed amazingly by the inimitable Diana Rigg, in the UK-produced spy spoof The Avengers; I definitely wanted to be Emma Peel when I was 9 years old. Samantha from Bewitched was a favorite, though I secretly admired her delightfully meddling and wicked mother, Endora, the most!

In adulthood we discover that other gay men had adopted these women in exactly the same way in childhood. Why do we, as individuals, gravitate to women, even the same women, before we are part of a gay scene, and before we are swept up in any collective gay groupthink?

The most noted and revered of gay men's icons are inevitably quirky or uncommonly beautiful and always talented. They portray a vulnerability that is often wrapped up in strength in the face of adversity. Lurking behind the glitz they may have troubled personal lives -- perhaps their lives are tainted by emotional turbulence -- and sometimes a subtle sense of pathos filters out from just behind the eyes.

Women who have been iconized by gay men are often hysterically funny too. The tragic element alongside high-camp humor are common denominators: the heightened or exaggerated characters they play, or the personae they choose to project, portraying a life at high frequency, top volume. We also gravitate to the characters the actresses play so brilliantly, such as Bette Davis in roles where she is often feisty and strident but also misunderstood and deeply vulnerable in the final analysis.

While pondering our icons, I decided to reach out to two university professors who have written about gender and sexuality issues with regard to gay culture.

Heather Love, a professor of English at Pennsylvania University, received her B.A. from Harvard and her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Her research interests include gender studies and queer theory. Professor Love cautioned me against overanalyzing the issue. When I asked her about her take on "camp" and the female icon, she said:

Esther Newton writes, "Camp humor is a system of laughing at one's incongruous position instead of crying," and I think that is pretty apt. The charge of camp is a result of social exclusion -- both the suffering and the insight that come from being an outsider.

She continued:

I am a bit wary of "pscyhologizing," [which is] one step away from "pathologizing" the camp impulse in gay men.... [O]ne can analyze this attraction [to female icons] in terms of what these figures represent: a highly stylized femininity and toughness combined with abjection, a kind of overexposed and highly theatrical situation of longing and self-making.

Professor Love went on to say that she feels that gay men gravitated to, for example, Joan Crawford because that is what gay men do -- "it is part of being a gay man" -- but I was left with more questions than answers.

Is there more to it?

Is it "pathologizing" to embrace the fact that we are different and delve deeply into why? As gays assimilate into the mainstream, it is often unpopular to champion our own individual and collective quirkiness. Do we lose something in the process of acceptance? I question the notion that gay men gravitate to female stars and pedestalize them simply because a lot of people like them: In order to be inducted into the gay men's hall of iconic fame, women need certain qualities over and above being female, for sure, but it is evident that being female is the one prerequisite.

Is it a joy of gender-bending, a phenomenon that is a perhaps a distant second cousin of transgenderism, as evidenced by the historical popularity of drag artists and drag performance in the gay subculture? Are gay people in the twilight zone of gender more than we acknowledge, or is there a simpler explanation?

Professor Love rounded off our chat by saying:

I guess I just think that the real difficulty here could be more social than psychic. Being a woman is a social identity as well as a psychic one; a lot is wrapped up in that identification, including simply not being in a position of social dominance. But you are right: It is a minefield!

I am wary of being too wary of analyzing the gay-icon phenomenon, because I think it has something to do with gender-bending and perhaps even wishful thinking on the part of gay men. I was nervous of my hypothesis, but why?

Professor Love says that gay men choose women because women are marginalized, so gay men identify.

But wait!

Marlon Brando and James Dean are lesbian icons. If part of the gay issue is to identify with those who are maligned or oppressed, then why do lesbians elevate Marlon Brando and James Dean to iconic status? Brando and Dean and the qualities they emanate hardly come off as oppressed. This would throw a curve ball to the notion that gay men iconize women because, historically, women have been marginalized.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University. I asked him why he thought gay men adopt females as icons, and he said:

The women often said to be icons are most certainly women who don't necessarily fit the script of femininity and sexual appeal within media culture. These women challenge and refuse to fit into this sort of commodity culture. They enter into media culture through their own script, their own definition of self. I think these qualities are celebrated and admired, especially within communities that are also depicted and treated as outsiders, as undesirable, and not "normative." Icons transcend generations; icons come to represent a broader cultural movement or genre, but most important, as icons, their visibility crosses community and generation, [whereas] "popularity" is ephemeral and is specific to a moment.

I think there is a difference between a star who simply happens to have many gay male fans and a star who is a bona fide gay patron saint, and I wanted to conclude with this: I fell in love with Olivia Newton-John when I was 11. She is a star with many gay fans -- I discovered on my 40th birthday, when I went to see her perform in Las Vegas, that she has a huge gay following -- but arguably, she's not quite a gay icon. I have watched several interviews in which she is asked why she thinks she has such a loyal gay male following, and her reply is interesting: "I am not a threat."

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