For gay men of a certain age, the passing of Donna Summer last week was a significant loss. Those of us in our late 40s and 50s remember this disco diva in her 1970s prime. Upon hearing the news of her death, all the memories attached to that time have come flooding back. Donna Summer was a gay icon who did not cultivate or seek out our community's approval. Her voice and her music are what drew us to her. I believe it was her performance in the film Thank God It's Friday that solidified her place in the hearts of gay men of that era. In that film she plays Nicole Sims, a plucky, tenacious artist. Nicole's story was a gay man's fantasy realized.
At the start of the film, Nicole has a fierce inner fabulousness, but no one recognizes this behind her average exterior. She has set her sights on a local disco hotspot to release her talent. When she enters she is ignored or pushed around by the patrons and the staff. She disguises herself in multiple personae to get into the elusive DJ booth. Her persistence pays off. She sneaks in and pleads her case, begging the DJ to listen to her demo. "Lookit," she tells him, "You got your chance. Give me mine." When he dismisses her, she shouts back, "Listen, Mr. Big Shot DJ, I ain't no amateur. I paid my dues. All I'm asking for is a chance."
Gay men in the 1970s could identify. Virtually invisible to the world, we had to cultivate our own inner strength. We, too, wanted a chance to shine. We played our roles to fit in and to get ahead, but all we really wanted was a moment to be ourselves, to release all that inner fierceness for all to see and hear. We needed an opportunity.
When Nicole is rebuffed again and again, it does not slow her determination. Her dialogue is filled with self-empowerment: "You ain't seen the last of me yet," she says, and, "My mind's made up, and when it's made up, it stays made up." She goes into the bathroom, slips on a fantastic sequined gown, places a flower in her hair just so, and emerges onto the dance floor as Donna Summer at her most iconic. If no one is going to give her a chance, she is going to steal it for herself. She steps up onto the stage and starts singing, despite the fact that no one is paying attention. The DJ, in a moment of weakness, opens the microphone for her to be heard. He winces, not knowing if this girl has what it takes. But suddenly -- magically -- her voice rings out, and "Last Dance" is heard for the first time. The people in the disco, the same people who had ignored her up to now, are transfixed. A luminous goddess is standing before them, an incredible sound coming from her lips. The crowd goes wild. Donna Summer is in all her glory, a triumph, a symbol of overcoming adversity in an astounding way.
Nicole was a plain Jane when she entered the disco, but she emerges an idol. We gay men wanted to be visible, too, to be seen and heard and loved. In addition, Nicole gets the man, because the cute DJ finally realizes how gorgeous she is. This was all of our dreams come true.
When cable television was just starting, I remember Thank God It's Friday playing over and over again. I could not get enough and watched it often. As a teenage boy who had not come out yet and who did not really even know what "gay" was, I unconsciously identified with Nicole Sims and her story of actualization. I loved the other stories in this disco fantasy, as well. All the characters go to the disco on a Friday night to unleash their real selves, to let their hair down. In the end, we all just want to be adored and appreciated for who we really are.
Donna Summer had a difficult relationship with the gay community when the AIDS crisis hit and rumors flew that she had made harsh statements against us. But as the years progressed, she came back around and let us know that she did see us, she appreciated us, she recognized us. Her last dance with us restored our love for her.