A recent New York Times article, "The Road Gets Rougher for Judyism's Faithful," asked whether Judy Garland is still a gay icon. On his SiriusXM radio program, HuffPost Gay Voices editor-at-large Michelangelo Signorile asked listeners to weigh in, eliciting a variety of opinions. Responses ranged from diehard "Judyists" expressing their undying love for the singer, to those who expressed respect for Judy but are admittedly out of touch with her influence due to generational shifts in icons. Most gay men had moved on to Madonna, and some even said Lady Gaga has taken over as gay icon du jour.
In reading the article and listening to these responses, a bigger question emerged for me, as a 31-year-old diva-phile: not whether Judy Garland is an icon, but why gay men draw battle lines between ourselves in how we express what it is that makes us gay.
One caller said he was embarrassed that other gay men identify and obsess over female icons, and would rather that we focus on politicians enacting change for gay rights. It really struck me that this person wanted to support the equal rights for himself as a gay man yet is embarrassed by the way other gay men behave.
Gay rights begin with the way we treat each other. When I hear comments like the embarrassed caller, I'm reminded of the way feminine gays get maligned for being who they are and for supposedly perpetuating a stereotype. The "straight-acting" myth and the incessant need to heteronormalize ourselves is part of why Judy Garland is becoming less of a gay icon than she used to be. We still live in a society that treats gay people in a hostile way. Dissing a diva-phile isn't doing us any favors.
If we examine the history of what made Judy Garland a gay icon in the first place, we'll find that in the 1950s and '60s, the gay men who were out of the closet never really had a choice but to be who they were. The gay men who passed as straight didn't just pass; they lived straight lives with wives and children.
The gay men and drag queens who stood up for themselves in the Stonewall riots of 1969 -- coincidentally the week of Judy's funeral -- were living as out men, probably because they couldn't help their obviously effeminate characteristics. These gay men need to be acknowledged for making it possible for the non-effeminate gay men to exist out of the closet. Instead, what has happened is that gay men who live comfortably out of the closet, bucking stereotypes, have rejected what an attachment to Judy Garland represents.
I'd like to see gay men celebrate more of what it is that makes our culture rich and fabulous. We don't listen to Judy and Madonna and Gaga because we're gay. We listen to them because they are amazing! I just wanted to tell Mr. Embarrassed to get over himself.
Judy Garland is a gay icon to me because despite her personal life being chaotic and unstable, when she was singing, she was free, free to be everything her spirit contained. She was completely open to the force that made her great. Her performances were fearless yet vulnerable. This energy is present in every gay icon since Judy: Barbra, Tina Turner, Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Lady Gaga. When Judy sang, she inhabited the sense that she was the person she was born to be, and the awful things anyone said about her just weren't true.
Regardless of how difficult each of us gay men had it growing up, whether accepted or bullied, we all had a sense that we were "different," "wrong," or "sinful." We listen and identify with these icons like Judy because through their voices we can silence the one we hear inside ourselves that tells us we're wrong for being who we are.
Check out my Judy playlist: