The Queer Icons Still With Us In 2017

We have more people to love, admire, look up to, and be inspired by than ever before.
01/10/2017 12:32 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2017

There’s an urban legend that the Stonewall riots happened because gays were so upset by the death of Judy Garland. That never understood that until 2016, when we were all devastated by the loss of one queer icon after another ― David Bowie, George Michael, Debbie Reynolds, Alexis Arquette and so many more.

There was even a rumor John Waters was about to go ― turns out he was just celebrating Christmas by passing a kidney stone. So don’t worry, John’s fine. And so are a ton of fabulous queer icons who are not just still alive, but producing some amazing work. And not just just kidney stones.

Whether they’re gay themselves, or allies, or somewhere in between, the LGBT community’s role models are particularly important, since we’re often rendered invisible or closeted. When you hardly ever see your community held up as aspirational, you learn to be protective of the ones who make it, like Wanda Sykes, or the allies who’ve stood by us, like Cyndi Lauper.

A lot of the people we celebrate are singers: Cher, Diana Ross, Madonna ― artists who basically spent the last half-century making sure homosexuality was something you could dance to.

And if at any point you catch yourself feeling like there’s nothing left to look forward to, just remember: Tori Amos, Joan Baez, Janet Jackson, Annie Lenox, and Grace Jones are all still alive. Better yet: that means there is a non-zero chance they could collaborate.

Bette Midler’s going to be in a Hello, Dolly! revival this year. That’s a show all about bouncing back from tragedy and embracing life with all its up and downs. That’s a message of particular importance to the gay community. And speaking of Hello, Dolly!, can you believe Carol Channing is still with us, and has so much intensity she can make a drag queen cry by just by leaning back in a chair?

And Carols not the only actor we still have. There’s George Takei, Harvey Fierstein, Jane Lynch, Paul Reubens.

Some are queer themselves, like Lily Tomlin. And others are good friends, like Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda. Their movie, 9 to 5, is a celebration of rejecting assumptions based on gender. And also of a little light bondage.

There are so many successful out queer actors in 2017. At this point, if anyone says being openly gay will ruin your career, they will be personally slapped by one of our great allies: maybe Joan Collins (who’s still alive), or Carol Kane (still alive), or Betty White (who will bury us all).

That’s just in America ― over in England, where being gay comes from, they’ve been kind enough to loan the world Julie Andrews, Judy Dench, not to mention Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith. Also Angela Lansbury in whatever part of England is Maine. These women may not be queer (at least not all the time), but between ruling empires and magically animating undergarments to stop Nazis, their power and their wit is the epitome of challenging traditional gender roles, so no wonder they means so much to LGBTs.

We’re also blessed with a lot of British dandies! Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi model stable relationships on Vicious. Boy George continues to give the world new ideas about hats. Stephen Fry’s been popping up on American network television lately, which means maybe there’s hope for this country after all?

It can be hard to find good strong queer figures in pop culture. And depending on where you live, it can be hard in real life. That’s what makes all these icons so, well, iconic ― they’re signals that there’s a whole big tribe out there, a tribe where queers and their allies thrive, a tribe that has a place for everyone, and that can always be counted on for support.

Whether they’re queer themselves or just beloved by queers, we have more people to love, admire, look up to, and be inspired by than ever before. As one of these icons once said, “from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.” We can mourn the people we’ve lost, but also celebrate the ones we still have. Life’s a cabaret, and we’ve got tickets to see the best ensemble in history.

Let me know thoughts and YOUR queer icons @mattbaume on Twitter. And check out the podcast The Sewers of Paris, where each week gay men tell stories about how entertainment changed their lives.

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