Illustration by Crumb + Lewis; Getty Images (Gaga, Madonna, Summer, Cher, Midler)
Even atheistic gay men will get down on their knees before their favorite pop diva — for a while, anyway. We’ve traditionally had a worshipful connection with female singers who serve as muses and champions, though we generally end up savoring the drama of bitching out the diva that somehow let us down.
At first, it was all about Judyism. From the 1930s through the ’60s, our leading lady was Judy Garland, because, like us, she’d been knocked down by horrible men, but was always able to stand up and belt out one more song, her voice getting even more riveting with wear and tear. What’s more, Judy could break your heart with her LGBT-like yearning to fit in (her signature song had “rainbow” in the title) while also pining for “The Man That Got Away,” her vulnerability acting as a siren call for gays to bathe her in roses and bittersweet applause.
In 1969, she let us down by dying, just a few days before the Stonewall rebellion changed the face of gay culture forever. But there was an upside, believe it or not. While some historians claim Judy’s death had nothing whatsoever to do with Stonewall, the reality is that every revolution has subtexts, and one of them happened to be the fact that our lady had just passed on and we weren’t going to take shit from anyone anymore. As a result, Judy is not only the ultimate gay icon, she’s become the patron saint of equal rights. (And lord knows she and daughter Liza always believed in gay marriage — they married gays!)
But betrayals don’t always lead to triumphant societal advances. In the early 1970s, Bette Midler emerged as a rising star at New York City’s Continental Baths, where toweled men sampled her act in between their own extremely vivid sexual performances. Bette could rip your heart apart like Judy, but she was also wildly campy and hilarious, a woman in control of her enormous range, from raunchy to weepy and back again. And then, say the gays, she rudely turned her back on us! In a 2013 documentary called Continental, various old-timers insist that Bette eventually grew away from talking about her bathhouse years, hoping to distance herself from her gay roots in order to gain broader appeal. They add that her diabolical plan backfired, leading to much career sagging — because without gays, a diva is as bereft as the Rose. (“Where’s everybody going?”) I’m not sure if all that’s true, but as Bette developed into both a major film star and one of the greatest live acts in history, the gays couldn’t help but come around again, even fully clothed. A diva was forgiven.
Emerging in the mid-’70s as a sexy disco diva with a huge gay audience, Donna Summer was the reigning voice of LGBT hedonism. But even she was accused of ragging on gays, making her the original Michelle Shocked and Fantasia combined. In the ’80s, Donna was quoted as saying that AIDS was a punishment from God and that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” The singer resolutely denied the comments, but there are gays who still stop dancing whenever “Hot Stuff” comes on. Even a hinted gay controversy has the power to cool the most sizzling career mojo.
But then came the pro-gay Madonna, who was totally in charge, a creature without vulnerability or fear. She was the anti-Judy, the perfect kick-ass gay icon for the AIDS era, when the community was mobilizing and beefing up to stay alive. Madonna knew the importance of gay support by playing to us, drawing upon our bold designs and voguing skills and having fun with suggestions that she was romping around with gal pal Sandra Bernhard (though it was actually Sandra’s girlfriend that she was getting to know). It was only when Madonna defended Eminem in 2001 — claiming his gay-baiting work wasn’t homophobic — that it seemed like she was desperate to pander to hot new tastes. She let us down, but fortunately re-emerged to kiss Britney and Christina, and later to don a Boy Scout outfit for a valuable point about rights and visibility. The gays love the lady again — a lot.
So many gay icons seem to turn their backs on us because of a craving to go more mainstream, instead of coming across like specialty acts loved by a fervent minority. There’s more money and mass love available on the horizon for them, so they rewrite their own history (or simply pick up a Bible) and sell us down the river by conveniently forgetting that we made them, fueled them, and adored them from day one. Of course we feed into the whole betrayal process by playing the hurt party, partly because we’re extra-sensitive to rejection, and partly because we need icons’ approval more than heteros, so when it’s withdrawn it’s extremely painful. And part of the diva-fan connection has always been love/hate; when a diva disappoints, she’s loathed. When she gets her shit together, we’re buying concert tickets again.
Drawing from Madonna’s well of reinvention (and maybe her song chords), Lady Gaga has proven to be a great ally, with a message of acceptance that’s attracted budding gays to her army of Little Monsters. By routinely celebrating the oppressed, Gaga has helped many teens come out of the closet — and with great outfits. What’s more, while Madonna made many of her points via innuendo, Gaga has done so by being vocal, trailblazing a new era where public figures speak their minds in every venue imaginable. She stood up for gay marriage and against “don’t ask, don’t tell” and made a big difference with her unapologetic fierceness. But with 2011’s hit song “Born This Way,” some gays — who are always looking for a reason to turn against a diva — felt used and started openly moaning about it. They liked their Lady better when she wasn’t spelling out her love of everything gay. I agree that the message was stronger when it was more subtly expressed, and yet I thought, If a positive message means you’re using the gays, then go ahead and use us! Alas, Gaga’s recent exercises haven’t won her major “applause, applause” from the gays, but she’s still got time.
Meanwhile, it might just be Cher who’s the post-Judy high priestess of the LGBT. After all, she’s ageless, she’s fabulous, and she’s even let us down — twice. Cher bristled over Chastity’s coming out as a lesbian in 1995, and, years later, found it hard to take when Chaz transitioned. These were icky moments, and yet, Cher’s honesty in admitting her feelings resonated with many of her fans who were going through similar situations. Rather than sugarcoating things, Cher reveals her foibles and takes us with her as she goes to the other side, where she achieves grace and acceptance. And that’s what the best gay diva should always do. Brava, diva.