A gay icon is a public figure (historical or present) who is embraced by many within lesbian, homosexual, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. Dykon, a portmanteau of the words "dyke" and "icon", has recently entered common lexicon to describe figures particularly iconic to lesbian people.
Some of the main qualities of a gay icon often include glamour, flamboyance, strength through adversity, and androgyny in presentation. Such icons can be of any sexual orientation or gender; if LGBT, they can be out or not. Although most gay icons have given their support to LGBT social movements, some have expressed opposition, advocating against a perceived "homosexual agenda".
Historical icons are typically elevated to such status because their sexual orientation remains a topic of debate among historians. Modern gay icons, who are predominantly female entertainers, commonly garner a large following within LGBT communities over the course of their careers. The majority of gay icons fall into one of two categories: they are either tragic, sometimes martyred figures, or prominent pop culture idols.
- 1 Historical examples
- 2 Modern examples
- 3 Fictional examples
- 4 Responses
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
The earliest gay icon may have been Saint Sebastian, a Christian saint and martyr, whose combination of strong and shirtless physique, symbolic arrow-pierced flesh and rapturous look of pain have intrigued artists, both gay and straight, for centuries and began the first explicitly gay cult in the nineteenth century. Journalist Richard A. Kaye wrote, "Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case."
Due to Saint Sebastian's status as gay icon, Tennessee Williams chose to use the saint's name for the martyred character Sebastian in his play, Suddenly, Last Summer. The name was also used by Oscar Wilde–as Sebastian Melmoth–when in exile after his release from prison. Wilde, an Irish writer and poet, was about as "out of the closet" as was possible for the late 19th century, and is himself considered to be a gay icon.
Marie Antoinette was an early lesbian icon. Rumors about her relationships with women circulated in pornographic detail by anti-royalist pamphlets before the French Revolution. In Victorian England, biographers who idealized the Ancien Régime made a point of denying the rumours, but at the same time romanticised Marie Antoinette's "sisterly" friendship with the Princesse de Lamballe as–in the words of an 1858 biography–one of the "rare and great loves that Providence unites in death." By the end of the 19th century, she was a cult icon of "sapphism." Her execution, seen as tragic martyrdom, may have added to her appeal.
Allusions to her appearance were made in early 20th century lesbian literature–most notably Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness–where the gay playwright Jonathan Brockett describes Marie Antoinette and de Lamballe as "poor souls... sick to death of the subterfuge and pretenses." She had crossover appeal as a gay icon, as well, at least for French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist Jean Genet, who was fascinated by her story. He included a reenactment of her execution in his 1947 play The Maids.
Modern gay icons in entertainment include both film stars and musicians, most of whom have strong, distinctive personalities, and many of whom died young or under tragic circumstances. For example, Greek-American opera singer Maria Callas–who reached her peak in the 1950s–became a gay icon because the uniquely compelling qualities of her stage performances were allied to a tempestuous private life, a sequence of unhappy love affairs, and a lonely premature death in Paris after her voice had deserted her.
Lesbian icons, sometimes called "dykons" (a portmanteau of the words "dyke" and "icon") are most often powerful women who are, or are rumored to be, lesbian or bisexual. However, a few male entertainers have also had iconic status for lesbian people. James Dean was an early lesbian icon who, along with Marlon Brando, influenced the butch look and self-image in the 1950s and after. One critic has argued for Johnny Cash as a minor lesbian icon, attributing his appeal to "lesbian identification with troubled and suffering masculinity." Science fiction author Forrest J Ackerman was dubbed an "honorary lesbian" for his help during the early days of lesbian rights organisation Daughters of Bilitis. He also wrote lesbian-themed fiction under the pseudonym Laurajean Ermayne.
Gay icons may be homosexual or heterosexual, out or in the closet, male or female. The women most commonly portrayed by drag queens are usually gay icons. The definition of what it means to be a "gay icon" has come under criticism in recent years for a lack of substance. Paul Flynn of The Guardian wrote, "The concept of gay icon is a cheap ticket...[and] the idea of gay iconography itself is currently replaceable with the idea of popularity and the ability to carry a strong, identifiable, signature look." Author Michael Thomas Ford depicts a similar attitude in his work of fiction Last Summer.
Although the term "gay icon" is most commonly used in the United States, the concept is found in other cultures, as well. Dalida, an Egyptian singer of Italian origin, had a career-long gay following that extended out of Paris and well into the Middle East. In the years since her death, her iconic status has not diminished. Filipino gay comedian Vice Ganda has also been considered a gay icon.
Similarly, in European countries like the Netherlands, Dutch singer and actress Willeke Alberti is widely embraced as a gay icon, due to a combination of her song repertoire, her durability, and her performances in support of manifold gay causes. Spanish actress Carmen Maura, Italian singer Mina, Scottish pop singer Jimmy Somerville, German singer-songwriter Marianne Rosenberg and English singer Dusty Springfield are also considered gay icons, as are Frenchs entertainers Mylène Farmer & Ysa Ferrer, Ukrainian boy band Kazaky, Turkish singer Ajda Pekkan and Italian actress Isabella Rossellini.
Latin American figures have also gained reputations as gay icons. Pop band Alaska y Dinarama is one example. Their single "¿A quién le importa?" ("Who Cares?"), which was later covered in 2002 by Thalía, was a hit for the 1980s Spanish band, becoming a gay anthem for the Spanish language-speaking LGBT community. Singer Gloria Trevi is considered a gay icon, especially after her release of "Todos Me Miran" ("They All Watch Me") featuring a rejected gay man turned drag queen, but had been popular with the gay and lesbian community in Mexico since the beginning of her career for being a controversial and powerful singer. Mexican singer and actress Paulina Rubio has been a gay icon for Latin America after supporting gay marriage and publicly stating that she wants to have sex with fellow gay icon Madonna.
The 1930s saw a number of writers, political activists, and celebrities garner reputations as gay icons. Poet and satirical writer Dorothy Parker reportedly had a large gay following. Though the phrase "friend of Dorothy" was made popular in later years by Judy Garland's role in the The Wizard Of Oz (1939), some speculate it originated with Parker.
Actress Bette Davis' performance in Dark Victory (1939), was dubbed by queer theorist Eve Sedgwick as "the epistemology of the closet." Davis' portrayal of the melodramatic Judith Traherne made her talent for playing someone with a secret revered and her "camp-worthy" dialog reflexive of the "flamboyant gay queen of the dramatic arts." Ed Sikov, author of Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, wrote that 20th century gay men developed their own subculture following Davis' example.
In Marcella Althaus-Reid's Liberation Theology and Sexuality, Marlene Dietrich, who is considered to be the first German-born actress to receive critical acclaim in Hollywood, is a model of liberation and subversion, as well as beauty, perfection and sensuality. In Rio de Janeiro, Althaus-Reid discovered a statue of Dietrich dressed as Our Lady of Aparecida in a gay bar in Copacabana beach. The image of Dietrich as the black Virgin Mary represents her overcoming duality. According to Althaus-Reid, it is a figure that sanctifies Dietrich while simultaneously liberating Mary.
Other icons from this time period include a string of entertainers including Cary Grant (who endured speculation over his alleged relationships with men).
An archetypal gay icon is Judy Garland. Michael Bronski, author of Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility, describes Garland as "the quintessential pre-Stonewall gay icon." So revered is she as a gay icon that her best known film role, Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, became used as code among homosexuals in the 1950s.
The expression, "Is he a friend of Dorothy?" was slang for, "Is he gay?" The character Dorothy meets an odd group of friends during her journey through Oz—the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow—and so referring to an individual as a "friend of Dorothy" meant that they were "unusual or odd" and, therefore, "queer." Though Garland has been noted for her embodiment of camp in her acting roles, Bronski argues that she was the "antithesis of camp" and "made a legend of her pain and oppression." As Bronski observes, the bleak setting of 1950s Hollywood had replaced the "sauciness of the 30s and the independence of the 40s." Garland, as well as Lana Turner and Susan Hayward, epitomized the idea that "suffering was the price of glamor...[and] the women stars of the 50s reflected the condition of many gay men: they suffered, beautifully".
Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli would later follow in her mother's footsteps as a gay icon, as would fellow musical artist Barbra Streisand. Joan Crawford has been described as the "ultimate gay icon — the martyr who suffered for her art and, therefore, enabled herself to bond with this all-important faction of her fanbase." In Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, author Lawrence J. Quirk explains that Crawford appealed to gay men because they sympathized with her struggle for success, in both the entertainment industry and in her personal life. Though Crawford had been a notable film star during the 1930s and 1940s, according to David Bret, author of Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr, it was not until her 1953 film Torch Song that she was seen as a "complete gay icon, primarily because it was shot in color." Bret explains that seeing the actress' red hair, dark eyes and "Victory Red" lips linked her to "gaydom's other sirens: Dietrich, Garland, Bankhead, Piaf, and new recruits Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas."
Actress Lucille Ball was also a prominent icon from this period. In Lee Tannen's book I Loved Lucy: My Friendship with Lucille Ball, the author describes his experience when he witnessed Lucille Ball being labeled a gay icon for the first time by a mutual friend. Ball was told of the adoration she received from gay men, as a bar in West Hollywood was known for routinely playing episodes of her television series I Love Lucy every weekend.
During the late 1970s, many comediennes appeared, joining the ranks of what had stereotypically been a male profession, including Joan Rivers, who began appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Rivers gained a strong gay following after performing in Greenwich Village, an LGBT friendly area of New York, from the early days of her career. Rivers' frank and sharp use of wit and insults (largely turned towards herself) made her an instant gay icon. Steve Allen of LBC Radio remains a gay icon to this day. His catchphrase is 'Dreadful, dreadful ladies and gentemen.'
The first gay icon of the 1970s underground gay disco scene was the Queen of Disco Donna Summer, whose dance songs became anthems for the clubbing gay community. Her number one single "Love to Love You Baby"—regarded as an "absolute disco epic"—not only became a gay anthem because of its "unabridged sexuality," but it also brought European-oriented disco to the United States and influenced the course the recording industry would take in the following years. However, Summer became immersed in controversy when, after becoming a Born again Christian during the 1980s at the dawn of the HIV/AIDS crisis, she was reported as making homophobic remarks, including that "AIDS was God's punishment to homosexuals." Her publicist later denied such statements. In a 1989 interview with The Advocate, Summer stated, "I don't look at people by their sexual orientation. I don't judge people because they are gay or straight. My love for people is based on my compassion as a person." Fellow disco singer Gloria Gaynor was embraced by the gay community because of her single "I Will Survive", which served as an anthem for both feminists and the Gay Rights movement. The Village People, a pioneering disco group, are also regarded as gay icons for bringing gay disco culture into the mainstream with their popular disco and dance hits.
Actress Lynda Carter became a gay icon after starring as Wonder Woman in the 1975-1979 series of the same name. Her role as the heroine attracted the LGBT community for her onscreen persona of female strength and fashionable outfits. Carter is a vocal supporter of LGBT equality and has participated in the New York City Gay Pride Parade.
Singer Cass Elliot became known as a gay icon, both during her solo career and as a member of The Mamas & the Papas. Her musical impact became known through her camp fashion and lyrics praising individuality (such as "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and "Different") and free love. Her music was later featured in the acclaimed gay film Beautiful Thing (1996), adapted from the play of the same name.
Singer and actress Bette Midler became recognized as a gay icon in the 1970s. After performing on Broadway, Midler began performing at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in the city, where she became close to her piano accompanist Barry Manilow, who produced her first major album The Divine Miss M (1973)."Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I'm still proud of those days [singing at gay bathhouses]. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward. So, I kind of wear the label of 'Bathhouse Betty' with pride," Middler reminisced in 1998.
Artists particularly embraced by the gay community during the 1980s included Debbie Harry, Yoko Ono, Alaska, Diana Ross, Grace Jones, Charo, Elaine Paige, Amanda Lear, Dolly Parton, Mylène Farmer, Whitney Houston, Olivia Newton-John and Prince. Several Britons were seen as gay icons, including singers Freddie Mercury (of Queen), George Michael, Morrissey and Pet Shop Boys, Kate Bush, David Bowie and writer Quentin Crisp. Elton John also became a gay icon during this decade, a status strengthened throughout the years.
Hailed as the Goddess of Pop, Cher became notable in the gay community not only for her music, but for her portrayal of a lesbian in Silkwood (1983), for which she received an Academy Award nomination. In later years, her daughter Chastity Bono came out as gay at the age of 17, much to her mother's initial feelings of "guilt, fear and pain". When Cher was able to accept her daughter's sexual orientation, she realized that Chastity, as well as other LGBT people, "didn't have the same rights as everyone else, [and she] thought that was unfair". Cher emerged not only as an icon among LGBT people, but also as a role model for straight parents who have gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender children. She became the keynote speaker for the 1997 national Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) convention. Cher's longevity in the music industry has often been credited to her gay following. William J. Mann, author of Gay Pride: A Celebration of All Things Gay and Lesbian, comments "[w]e'll be dancing to a 90-year-old Cher when we're 60. Just watch".
Continuing into the 1980s, pop music singer Madonna—dubbed "Queen of Pop" and "Queen of Dance" by the media, and later the "World's Most Successful Female Recording Artist" by Guinness World Records—became the preeminent gay icon of the late 20th century. The Advocates Steve Gdula commented "[b]ack in the 1980s and even the early 1990s, the release of a new Madonna video or single was akin to a national holiday, at least among her gay fans." Gdula also stated that during this period, concurrent with the rise of the AIDS epidemic, "when other artists tried to distance themselves from the very audience that helped their stars to rise, Madonna only turned the light back on her gay fans and made it burn all the brighter."
Georges Claude Guilbert, author of Madonna As Postmodern Myth: How One Star's Self-Construction Rewrites Sex, Gender, Hollywood and the American Dream, writes that Madonna's reverence as a gay icon is equated with that of Judy Garland, noting similarities between the two popular culture icons. Guilbert writes that gay icons "usually belong to one or the other of two types of female stars: either the very vulnerable or suicidal star, or the strong idol whom nobody or nothing resists, like Madonna." According to Madonna: An Intimate Biography, the pop star has always been aware that her most loyal fans were gay men, has appeared in gay-oriented magazines as an activist for gay rights, and was even named in the book The Gay 100 as one of the most influential gay people in history.
Other superstar recording artists, including Cyndi Lauper, followed. Lauper and Madonna were seen as trailblazers of women's sexual liberation. Lauper's debut album She's So Unusual (1983) generated a large following of fans responding to the "gay-friendly camp and lesbian-friendly womyn power epitomized in [her] femme anthem 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun'." Lauper explained that growing up during the 1960s influenced her dedication to fair and equal treatment of all people, noting that the music of the 1960s "helped to open the world's point of view to change." According to Lauper "It wasn't until my sister came out in the early '70s that I became more aware of the bigoted slurs and the violence against a community of people...who were gay." Lauper has since become an active gay rights activist, often encouraging LGBT people and their allies to vote for equal rights. Political activism for LGBT rights was the theme of Lauper's annual True Colors Tour.
In the mid- to late-1980s, Oprah Winfrey emerged as an icon for the gay community with an intimate confessional communication style that altered the cultural landscape. According to the book Freaks Talk Back by Yale sociologist Joshua Gamson, the tabloid talk show genre popularized by Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue, did more to make gay people mainstream and socially acceptable than any other development of the 20th century by providing decades of high-impact media visibility for sexual nonconformists.
Fellow gay icon Ellen DeGeneres cast Winfrey to play the therapist she comes out of the closet to on the controversial episode of her Ellen sitcom. Though Winfrey abandoned her tabloid talk show format in the mid-1990s as the genre became flooded by more extreme clones like Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones and Jerry Springer, she continued to broadcast shows that were perceived as gay-friendly. Her show Oprah's Big Give was the first reality TV show with an openly gay host Nate Berkus. Her own show has been nominated several times for GLAAD Media Awards, and another in 2010 for an interview with Ellen DeGeneres and her wife Portia de Rossi, winning one in 2007 Oprah Winfrey also co-produced the Oscar-winning film Precious (2009), which was honored by GLAAD for portraying a lesbian couple as heroines. Winfrey's iconic status among gay males has entered the popular culture. One of the stars of the reality TV show The Benefactor was a gay African American man named Kevin who was so obsessed with Winfrey that he would ask "What would Oprah do?" before making any strategic decision. Adam Lambert is another high profile gay man who has described himself as a fan of Winfrey. Other icons from this decade include the cast of The Golden Girls, Joan Collins, Annie Lennox, Siouxsie Sioux, Tori Amos, Tina Arena, Harvey Fierstein and Stevie Nicks.
Janet Jackson, who twice was established as one of the highest-paid recording artists in the history of contemporary music during the 1990s, became a gay icon after she released her sixth studio album The Velvet Rope (1997). The album was honored by the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and received the award for Outstanding Music Album at the 9th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in 1998 for its songs that dealt with sexual orientation and homophobia. On April 26, 2008, she received the Vanguard Award—a media award from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—to honor her work in the entertainment industry in promoting equality for LGBT people. GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano commented, "Ms. Jackson has a tremendous following inside the LGBT community and out, and having her stand with us against the defamation that LGBT people still face in our country is extremely significant." Her sister, La Toya Jackson, is also regarded as a gay icon.
Deborah Cox quickly becomes a gay icon due to his investment for the fight against the AIDS but also and especially thanks to club remixes included in her singles, which are frequently played in the discothèques.
Writer, composer and singer, Ysa Ferrer is regarded as the French "Kylie Minogue". Her dance/electro style, called "Pop Kosmic" is very popular in France and Russia especially in the gay community where she is considered as a true icon.
The Spice Girls became gay icons during the 1990s, on account of their dance-pop sound, their flamboyant dress, outgoing personalities and their affirmations of equality. Geri Halliwell, in particular, went on to become a gay icon in her own right during her solo career in the 2000s, covering The Weather Girls' classic gay anthem, It's Raining Men.
Kylie Minogue reinvented herself musically in the first decade of the 21st century and found herself faced with a renewed and increasing gay fanbase. Minogue said, "My gay audience has been with me from the beginning ... they kind of adopted me." Minogue first became aware of her gay audience in 1988, when several drag queens performed to her music at a Sydney pub, and she later saw a similar show in Melbourne. Minogue felt "very touched" to have such an "appreciative crowd," and this encouraged her to perform at gay venues throughout the world, as well as headlining Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the largest gay pride festival in the world. Minogue has one of the largest gay followings in the world. Her sister, Dannii Minogue, also has a large gay following and has been regarded a gay icon.
As a result of her role playing Karen Walker on Will & Grace, Megan Mullally emerged as a gay icon. One commentator wrote that the show "won the actress an impressive gay following, both with men and women, who want to be her and with her."
Christina Aguilera is widely regarded a gay icon, a status that came to prominence following the release of the song "Beautiful," which instantly became a gay anthem and was recognized as "the most empowering song for lesbian, gay and bisexual people of the decade." The accompanying video featured people who can feel ostracised from society, including a same-sex couple and a transgender woman. Aguilera also was honored with the very first spot on The Abbey's Gay Walk of Fame for her contributions to gay culture, re-enforcing the title of gay icon she earned a decade ago with her anthem "Beautiful".
Popular singers including Adele, AFTERSCHOOL, Agnes, Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen, Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, Belinda, Beyoncé, Björk, BoA, Brown Eyed Girls, Kate Bush, Colbie Caillat, Mariah Carey, Cascada, CHVRCHES, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, Cheryl Cole, Sheryl Crow, Lana Del Rey, Dev, Celine Dion, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Caro Emerald, Sky Ferreira, Frankmusik, Lady Gaga, Girls' Generation, Alison Goldfrapp, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Ellie Goulding, Ayumi Hamasaki, Angel Haze, Neon Hitch, Natalie Horler, Jennifer Hudson, HyunA, Inna, Elly Jackson, Janet Jackson, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jessica, Bridget Kelly, Kerli, Kesha, Natalia Kills, Avril Lavigne, Leona Lewis, Little Boots, Cher Lloyd, Jennifer Lopez, Demi Lovato, Macklemore, Marina And The Diamonds, Bonnie McKee, Bridgit Mendler, Nicki Minaj, Róisín Murphy, Oh Land, Peaches, Katy Perry, P!nk, Rihanna, Robyn, Britney Spears, Alexandra Stan, Ami Suzuki, Bella Thorne, Ashley Tisdale, Carrie Underwood, Brendon Urie, Florence Welch, Betty Who, Hayley Williams, Amy Winehouse, Zendaya, and many others, are major gay icons of current times.
In Brazil, pop singers Kelly Key, Sandy, Lorena Simpson, Preta Gil, and Wanessa are considered gay icons. In 2012, Key was honored with the "Pink Triangle Award," a Brazilian LGBT award, considered the "Gay Oscar".
Many famous actors have been celebrated as gay icons, including Ben Affleck, Jessica Alba, Tyra Banks, Emily Blunt, Lauren Conrad, Zac Efron, Chris Evans, Tina Fey, Megan Fox, James Franco, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kathy Griffin, Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Kim Kardashian, Nicole Kidman, Johnny Knoxville, Ashton Kutcher, Ryan Kwanten, Jessica Lange, Angela Lansbury, Lucy Lawless, Mo'Nique, Ellen Pompeo, Ryan Reynolds, Chloë Sevigny, Mink Stole, Channing Tatum, Sofia Vergara and many others. Meryl Streep became a gay icon after portraying Miranda Priestly in the film The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Glee actors Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, Darren Criss and Naya Rivera are also considered gay icons. Comedians Howard Stern and Margaret Cho also have gay followings.
Various LGBT celebrities have been considered gay icons after becoming open about their sexual orientation as media professionals and public figures, including Lance Bass, Carmen Carrera, Charice, Beth Ditto, Ellen DeGeneres, Diamond Rings, Portia de Rossi, Fergie, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Nelly Furtado, Rob Halford, Neil Patrick Harris, Jaymi Hensley, Elton John, T. R. Knight, Ladyhawke, Adam Lambert, k.d. lang, Ricky Martin, MIKA, Aubrey O'Day, Rosie O'Donnell, Frank Ocean, RuPaul, Jeffree Star, George Takei, Tegan And Sara, Rufus Wainwright, Wentworth Miller, Matt Dallas and Raven Symoné. 
Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Greg Louganis, Tom Daley, Ben Cohen, David Beckham, Gareth Thomas, Johnny Weir, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robbie Rogers and Jason Collins are considered gay icons within the sports industry.
In the political arena, gay icons are represented by, among others, Princess Diana, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, George Moscone, Coretta Scott King, Abraham Lincoln, Winnie Mandela, Hillary Clinton, Eva Perón, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Imelda Marcos and Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the world's first openly lesbian head of government of the modern era. Roger Casement, an Irish civil rights activist, became a gay icon of the early 20th century. Civil rights activist Coretta Scott King was held in high regard among members of the gay community for her involvement in the Gay Rights Movement. During her lifetime, she routinely equated the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, led by her husband Martin Luther King Jr., with that of LGBT activism.
I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'... I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.—Coretta Scott King, Metro Weekly
San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to office in the U.S. and spearheaded the defeat of statewide anti-gay ballot measure Proposition 6 in California in 1978. While he and Moscone were assassinated shortly thereafter, both became viewed as martyrs for gay rights. Milk's image as a positive role model led to him becoming the namesake for the first high school designed primarily for gay teenagers, the Harvey Milk High School, in the East Village of New York City. The portrayal of those efforts in the critically acclaimed film Milk earned Sean Penn an Oscar and comparisons to the contemporary battle over the anti-gay ballot initiative Proposition 8 raging in California at the time of the film's release in 2008.
While most of these individuals have been lionized for their strength, style, compassion, and/or work for equal rights, an ironic icon is Anita Bryant, who worked to oppose homosexuality. During the 1970s, Bryant led a national campaign, "Save Our Children", which conflated homosexuality and child molestation and insisted that, because homosexuals cannot reproduce, they must "recruit" or "convert" people to their lifestyle. California State Senator John V. Briggs applauded Bryant's work as a "national, religious crusade [and] courageous stand to protect American children from blatant homosexuality". However, as Bruce C. Steele of The Advocate wrote, Bryant's crusade against the Gay Rights Movement made her synonymous with it.
About 10 years ago, I was at an American Booksellers Association convention where Bryant was ... still pissing and moaning about how the homosexuals had destroyed her career as spokesperson for Florida orange juice. The irony is, it wasn't the orange juice boycott that caused her to lose her job; it was the fact that she made herself forever associated with homosexuality. So, in one way, she was a victim of homophobia herself: Folks on the orange board didn't want people to think about queers when they bought orange juice."—as told to Bruce C. Steele, The Advocate
According to John Coppola, exhibit curator and former head of exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, "In a completely unintended way, Anita Bryant was about the best thing to happen to the gay rights movement ... She and her cohorts were so over the top that it just completely galvanized the gay rights movement". The 30th anniversary of Bryant's campaign against LGBT rights has been commemorated at the Stonewall Library & Archives, with executive director Jack Rutland dubbing her "The Mother of Gay Rights".
Various fictional characters have been regarded as gay icons, including cartoon figures. Bugs Bunny, a fictional anthropomorphic rabbit appearing in animation by Warner Bros. Cartoons during the Golden Age of American animation—dubbed the greatest cartoon character of all time by TV Guide—has been declared a "queer cultural icon [and] parodic diva" due to his "cross-dressing antics" and camp appeal.
Some comic book characters are considered gay icons. Homosexual interpretations of Batman and the original Robin, Dick Grayson, have been of interest in cultural and academic study, due primarily to psychologist Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954). In the mid-1950s, Wertham led a national campaign against comic books, convincing Americans that they were responsible for corrupting children and encouraging them to engage in acts of sex and violence. In relation to Batman and Robin, Wertham asserted "the Batman type of story helps to fixate homoerotic tendencies by suggesting the form of an adolescent-with-adult or Ganymede-Zeus type of love-relationship".
In Containing America: Cultural Production and Consumption in Fifties America, authors Nathan Abrams and Julie Hughes point out that homosexual interpretations of Batman and Robin existed prior to Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham claimed his book was, in fact, prompted by the earlier research of a California psychiatrist. The relationship between Batman and arch villain the Joker has also been interpreted by many as homoerotic. Frank Miller, author of The Dark Knight Returns, has described the relationship between Batman and the Joker as a "homophobic nightmare," and views the character as sublimating his sexual urges into crime fighting, concluding, "He'd be much healthier if he were gay."
One TV series that appeals most to LGBT culture is the 1960s sitcom Bewitched. Aside from the campy characterizations, it contained three gay cast members (Dick Sargent, Paul Lynde and–allegedly–Agnes Morehead). Star Elizabeth Montgomery and Sargent were grand marshals of a Los Angeles gay pride parade in the early 1990s. Since 2000, TV series are embraced to LGBT community as Queer as Folk which the first hour-long drama on American television to portray the lives of gay men and women  and The L Word in 2004, a television drama series portraying the lives of a group of lesbian, bisexual, straight and transgender people and their friends. Other examples of TV series appealing to LGBT culture are the supernatural drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in which Willow Rosenberg came out and began a lesbian relationship), Xena: Warrior Princess and Bianca Montgomery of All My Children.
Many celebrities have responded positively to being regarded as gay icons, several noting the loyalty of their gay fans. Eartha Kitt and Cher credited gay fans with keeping them going at times when their careers had faltered. Kylie Minogue has acknowledged the perception of herself as a gay icon and has performed at such events as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Asked to explain the reason for her large gay fanbase, Minogue replied, "It's always difficult for me to give the definitive answer because I don't have it. My gay audience has been with me from the beginning ... they kind of adopted me." She noted that she differed from many gay icons who were seen as tragic figures, with the comment, "I've had a lot of tragic hairdos and outfits. I think that makes up for it!"
Tammy Faye Messner (ex-wife of fellow controversial televangelist Jim Bakker and mother of pastor Jay Bakker), who benevolently has been referred to as "the ultimate drag queen," said in her last interview with Larry King that, "When I went — when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that."
Madonna has acknowledged and embraced her gay following throughout her career, even making several references to the gay community in her songs or performances, and performed at several gay clubs. She has declared in interviews that some of her best friends are gay and that she adores gay people and refers to herself as "the biggest gay icon of all times." She also has been quoted in television interviews in the early 1990s as declaring the "big problem in America at the time was homophobia."
Turkish electronic pop singer Hande Yener refers to there being "a strong bond" between herself and her gay audience. She says that she tries new styles in her career and her stand against prejudice is best understood by gay audiences. She admits that she often goes to gay clubs. Yener starred as herself, a gay icon in a gay-themed movie The Queen is in the Factory. She is one of the few Turkish singers who will perform in a gay club, and has participated in the Istanbul Pride march and demonstration in 2009.
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