What makes Judy Garland a gay icon? Experts explain what she and others, from Diana Ross to Madonna, have in common

For decades, LGBTQ people have used the term "queer icon" to describe a specific type of public figure: usually a legendary heroine whose life, work and allies have had a major impact on cool kid culture and its loyal fan base.

But what makes a gay icon, well, iconic?

Legendary Hollywood author and cultural critic Bruce Vilanch tells Yahoo Life, "A gay icon is someone who stands for the determination to be oneself - and [is] unapologetic." Understanding what it's like to be "out there" is equally important.

"When we create icons out of people, we do it because we realize they get us," he continues. "Lady Gag got us, Madonna got us, and Nelson Mandela got us. " They're all gay icons because they represent a part of our struggle - they recognize us." (Learn more about some of the most famous gay icons in interactive AR, below.)

These qualities are certainly shared today by several figures: from Lil Nas X, whose outspoken, cool kid identity about his blackness is changing the face of hip-hop; JoJo Siwa, a powerhouse of the Z generation whose loyal fan base witnessed her make history as one half of the first same-sex pairing in Dancing with the Stars history; and Demi Lovato, whose conversations about their non-binary identity sparked a conversation about the importance of using inclusive language.

Of course, these qualities were also recognized by cool audiences as early as the 1920s (though the exact term didn't exist at the time) in actresses like Sunset Strip star, Gloria Swanson and shrew, Mae West, a vocal LGBTQ ally who shocked the nation after playing a drag queen in her Broadway play, The Drag. Golden Age stars such as the supposedly bisexual Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, not only for their savage performances, but also for being surrounded by homosexuals in their personal lives.

While it's easy to use general terms like "camp," "leading lady" or "glamour" when trying to describe such icons, gay culture critic Michael Musto explains that not everyone clearly falls into these categories-just as not everyone falls into these categories as a pop star or movie star. They can also be socialites, such as Edie Bouvier Beale of "Little" and "Big," Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' infamous cousin, whose lives are depicted in the documentary "Grey Gardens". (As explained by Michael Wilson, who directed "Grey Gardens" - the musical - "to be associated with shamelessness means shame. You suffer a lot of ridicule, you suffer bullying. These two women suffered these things …… (But they endured, they survived," Wilson calls the "life-resilient force" of people in the gay community.) Or they could be royalty, like Princess Diana, whose combination of glamour and radicalism has become the enduring reputation of a gay icon.

"Cool kids are naturally oppressed, so we often rely on gay icons to lift us up, uplift us, educate us and inspire us," explains Musto, who credits these icons with providing catharsis for cool kids during times of trauma - whether it was during the the height of the AIDS crisis, and in today's war against trans-culture.

But to fully grasp the concept of queer icons, it's important to go back to the mother of all queer icons: Judy Garland.

Dorothy's friend
As Vilanch explains, the modern archetype of the gay icon is often thought of as the legendary Garland, who turns 100 years old this year (including celebrations such as a theatrical screening of The Wizard of Oz and a perfume release). The star's image as a tortured soul for her art, with incredible talent and unwavering loyalty to her queer fan base, resonated with the long-oppressed LGBTQ community - and still does today.

At a time when it was dangerous to go out, Garland's concerts attracted many gay men, lesbians and transgender people who were out. "There were a lot of comments about her queer fan base at the time, and it was never pleasant," explains Vilanch. "In all the comments you read, they were talking about 'boys in the balcony,' but they weren't in the balcony. They're right in the front row."

She is even considered to be associated with the term "Dorothy's friend", or at least similar. Coded slang, and the way gay men sometimes referred to each other back in World War II. The term may refer to Dorothy's anachronistic friend in The Wizard of Oz, as portrayed by Garland on screen (although the term is also associated with the 1920s American satirist about Dorothy Parker).

In any case, Vilanch said of Garland, "There was a great deal of Simpatico, a kind of back-and-forth between her gay fans and herself. She so eloquently expressed heartbreak." Moreover, he added, "That generation also watched her develop from a bright-eyed girl to a woman ravaged by her own insanity and the insanity of the world she lived in."

Garland died at age 47 of an accidental overdose - her funeral was held just hours before the historic event of the Stonewall Uprising, a rebellion which became known for promoting the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Some historians believe the so-called "riot" was sparked by the emotional aftermath of Garland's funeral, though that premise has been challenged.

"She wasn't the cause of Stonewall," Musto said. "But her death hangs in the balance." Transgender activist Silvia Rivera's historical account of the event, based on Martin Duberman's 1994 book "Stonewall," does see the loss of Garland as a turning point as an uprising leader. "It was the end of an era," Rivera said tearfully, "the greatest singer of my childhood, the greatest actress no longer existed …… there was no one to look up to. "

Whether she played a role that night or not, the timing of Garland's funeral helped cement her legacy in the cool kids community for generations to come.

In the wake of her death, many other beloved performers have followed in her footsteps - including her equally legendary daughter, Liza Minnelli, who was 23 years old when her mother died.

"Liza had a lot of similar qualities that made her a gay icon," Musto says. Minnelli, of course, won the hearts of cool kids fans because of her career-turning 1972 cabaret performance, which won her an Oscar, and her reputation for "partying with the gays" at Studio 54 in the 1970s, which included a number of performances with her dear friend Holston (not to mention her two ex-husbands, Peter Allen and David Geist, were rumored to be gay).

Vilanch notes that leading ladies like Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross have also captured their attention, showing a sensibility that resonates with gay fans.

Midler, who grew up in Hawaii and began her career in a gay bathroom in New York City in the 1970s, is a unique icon who earned a reputation in the gay community before becoming mainstream. Her loyal fan base of cool kids never left her.

"I don't think she ever expected her career to go the way it did, but it did," says Vilanch, who has worked with Midler for nearly 50 years. "She was drawn to that [cool kid] sensibility because she understood it herself. She's always been an outsider. Our joke was, 'It's hard to be the only Jewish girl in the Samoan community."

Likewise, Barbra Streisand "has always known the value of her queer audience," Musto explains. Not only did she enter Hollywood as an outsider who successfully challenged beauty standards, but she's also known for playing roles, from Funny Girl to Yentl's films, that portray outsiders who find confidence from within - something that resonates deeply with cool audiences. Plus, she has long been an outspoken advocate for equality (no doubt fueled by the fact that her son, Jason Gould, is a gay man).

Likewise, Ross' music has been a beacon for LGBTQ fans for decades, starting with her charisma with the Supreme. Her fierce transformation as a redwood supermodel cemented her status as a leading lady, and "I'm Coming Out" remains one of the world's most popular gay anthems.

Meanwhile, the likes of Cher, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna have not only embraced their gay fans, but have also steadfastly worked to elevate their work and activism. "Madonna was one of the first people to really recognize the importance of a gay audience," Musto explains. "She put us at the center of the stage. She worked with her gay brothers and many others like Jean Paul Gaultier and catered to a gay audience."

According to Musto, Madonna brings together what Garland exhibits - "vulnerability and strength at the same time" - in one place. "Madonna is strong," he explained. "She doesn't show vulnerability." She also lost many friends to AIDS and became a committed activist, raising and donating millions of dollars for years to AIDS research.

The LGBTQ journalist explained that this brings another iconic quality, the ability to "bounce back" after experiencing loss Dan Avery. "People like Cher and Judy Garland went from superstars to financial ruin and back again," he says. That, combined with a solid work record, is what sets them apart.

"As much as I love the music of people like Ariana Grande and even some of the younger stars, it feels like, you don't really suffer from the slings and arrows," he added. "You're approaching icon status, but I don't think you're there yet."

The future is crossed
While pop icons and icons like David Bowie, Elton John and Melissa Etheridge have spoken openly about their cool kid identities throughout their careers, it's important to note that out and proud LGBTQ people - especially black non-binary/trans people - -are important to the idea of being accepted by queer people is a fairly new audience as is the mainstream audience.

"For example, a portrait of Ellen DeGeneres versus a portrait of Lil Nas X or a portrait of Saucy Santana. That difference is how these people are represented in the world," explained Trevor Anderson, a black non-binary entertainment journalist and activist. "The cool kids, about our icons, we have more complex and nuanced conversations, you know, that the 'John Hughes-cis-het' public has made. I think that's okay."

Despite the height of her hit show in 1997 and suffering as a result, Anderson has to admit that as a white cisgender woman, DeGeneres was more accessible to mainstream audiences and that her coming out did not create opportunities for black trans/non-binary gender people to rise.

It took nearly 20 years before shows like Orange is the New Black and Pose made stars and icons out of Laverne Cox and Mj Rodriguez, both of whom broke barriers for trans and non-binary performers in front of and behind the camera.

Performers like Mariah Carey meanwhile, Celine Dion, Beyonce and Lady Gaga (the last person to identify as bisexual) followed in Madonna's footsteps and took a big step toward inclusivity. Although Beyonce is a straight, cisgender woman, her ability to capture the emotional essence of black cool kids has given millions of cool fans the confidence to be themselves. gaga often uses her platform to fight prejudice and defend equality.

"When I was growing up, I could really use icons like that," Musto said of their activism. "The world has changed. Today, we need gay icons who are rigid and hard-headed. That's Gaga, that's Beyonce."

In addition, Anderson added that today's audience craves authentic expressions of coolness that go beyond strength, charisma and resilience, noting that the term "gay icon" has evolved to include LGBTQ people. Among them are figures like RuPaul and Billy Porter - not to mention transgender icons like Cox, perhaps the world's most famous transgender person, and Umbrella Academy star Elliot Page, who emerged as transgender last year. Driving the culture forward, they've had a profound impact.

"Lil Nas X in particular, as a black gay man in hip-hop, he's topping the pop charts and is a troll on social media, and we haven't seen black gay men do that on the level that he's doing," Anderson said. "People finally seem to feel represented, like, 'If Lil Nas X can be his incredible gay self at the top of the charts, maybe we can be our incredibly cool kid selves at work or brunch - or whatever."

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