From The London Times
March 27, 2009
Who are you calling a gay icon?
The National Portrait Gallery is breaking new ground with its Gay Icons show this summer. But the only shock is those it has left out
What is a gay icon today? Do you have to be gay, like gays or know anything about gays to be one? And if you’re not gay do they matter in the first place? Yesterday the National Portrait Gallery unveiled plans for a summer show that attempts to tackle those questions, a show that it simply would not have attempted a generation ago.
Gay Icons will be the most eminent survey yet of a suddenly inescapable phenomenon, the mysterious, amorphous category of acclaim that links David Beckham’s Armani underpants, Kylie’s multiple comebacks and Margaret Thatcher’s most unlikely fanbase.
Even 15 years ago there would have been howls of indignation at a leading national institution spending public money on a show designed by, partly for and largely about, gay people. Now, in more tolerant times, Gay Icons is an intellectual rather than a political provocation.
If it is still possible in the year 2009 to stoke genuine anger with a major exhibition such as this, then the gallery has surely found the only way to do it with a series of deliberately iconoclastic omissions. Its 60 icons are as much a portrait of the people who chose them as anything. Ten openly gay figures in public life, among them Sir Elton John, Sir Ian McKellen and Billie Jean King, have each selected six personal heroes for inclusion – people who inspired them to achieve, or rather to live, as they have.
Many of the usual suspects – the Minogues, Basseys, Beckhams and Garlands, who sometimes appear to have the words “gay icon” as an unofficial honorific – are missing. In their place the gallery is clearing hanging space for photographs of Nelson Mandela and Tchaikovsky, neither of whom ever navigated through a rough patch in their career with a Saturday night cameo at G-A-Y.
It’s not a debate that the gallery’s founders would have recognised. When Philip Henry Stanhope, the 5th Earl Stanhope and his staunch supporters the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay and the Calvinist satirist Thomas Carlyle finally secured royal backing for a National Portrait Gallery in 1856, “icon” meant a religious portrait and “gay” was still only a type of happiness.
In the 19th and early 20th century there were gay personality cults around a smattering of real and fictional individuals such as St Sebastian, Marie Antoinette and Dorothy Parker. By the 1950s, pop culture offered a steady conveyor belt of new candidates to identify with, often by dint of their secret suffering. Garland’s character in the Wizard of Oz had given rise, it’s claimed, to a term “friend of Dorothy” that acted as code to describe gays to one another.
But as the cultural theorist Professor Richard Dyer argues in a book that will accompany the show, the notion of a “gay icon” would have meant little even 30 years ago. It is no coincidence, he writes, that the two words evolved in parallel because “the term gay was part of a project about making homosexuality visible and icons are one of the main forms of doing this… The business of making gay icons is largely a product of recent times.”
And how. Skip forward to the present and the phrase is everywhere; Google has 158,000 separate entries for it. Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, Katie Price, Bugs Bunny and Vladimir Putin are all claimed as gay icons. The gallery’s team spent a year and a half working up its selection. According to Sandy Nairne, the director of the gallery, the idea emerged from a proposal by Bernard Horrocks, the gallery’s copyright law expert, and was given the green light because “we thought it was a really interesting subject with something that could be popular”.
“We wanted to make sure that is wasn’t simply for the gay community,” Nairne says, adding slightly nervously, “we are becoming more confident that that’s the case.”
The broadcaster Sandi Toksvig came on board as chair of selectors and she recruited Lord Alli, Alan Hollinghurst, Sir Elton John, Jackie Kay, Billie Jean King, Sir Ian McKellen, Lord (Chris) Smith, Ben Summerskill and Sarah Waters to fill out her panel.
Sadly there was never a point when more than two or three of them were able to sit down together at the same time. Suggestions instead came in from around the world and were matched to suitable photographs. It was decided early on to include only photographic portraits.
The gallery is holding back the full list of those who make the cut until nearer the opening, but it includes the artists Francis Bacon and David Hockney, the civil rights campaigner Harvey Milk, the writers Quentin Crisp, Joe Orton, Dame Daphne Du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith and Walt Whitman, and from the music world Tchaikovsky, k.d. lang, Rostropovich, Will Young and the Village People, the entertainers Ellen DeGeneres, Kenneth Williams and Lily Savage, and Mandela and Diana, Princess of Wales. Their stories will be illustrated by 60 photographic portraits including works by Andy Warhol, Linda McCartney, Lord Snowdon, Polly Borland, Fergus Greer, Terry O’Neill and Cecil Beaton. Diversity is the whole point.As Toksvig says: “There’s no such thing as a gay community any more than there’s a straight community. Gay people are as disparate as any other group.”
The list of icons includes straight people, gay people and “people who might be surprised to find themselves on a list of gay icons”. If there is a common thread between the panel’s choices it is bravery – whether it be the heterosexual Russian cellist Rostropovich sheltering Alexander Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet state, or Peter Tatchell’s persistent attempts to arrest Robert Mugabe. All of the selectors have “been through a period of fear” in their lives, Toksvig says, ranging from “what will my mother think?” to the death threats that several of the panel have received because of their sexuality. The exhibition is timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, the trigger for the modern gay rights movement. Despite civil partnerships and much wider social acceptance, Toksvig stressed that “everything in the gay garden is still not rosy”, as evidenced by newspaper reports yesterday that one medical expert in six has tried to “cure” gayness.
However, Sumerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall UK, the gay rights lobbying organisation, preferred to celebrate a “remarkable” landmark. “It would have been unthinkable 15 years ago for this to happen at one of Britain’s most eminent galleries. The Daily Mail would have been all over it. Hopefully, the tourists who visit it this summer will leave thinking of a slightly more modern Britain.”
A sign of more modern attitudes it may be, but the exhibition is also in line with the principles of one of the founders. As Macaulay once wrote: “We are free, we are civilised, to little purpose, if we grudge to any portion of the human race an equal measure of freedom and civilisation.”
No Dusty? No Judy? Save our dramatic divas
Sometimes you can be just too counterintuitive. No Judy. NO JUDY??!! Of course, a fashionable list of gay icons today would exclude her. It’s doubtful many younger gay men – without the imparted wisdom of a homosexual over the age of 35 (watch those creaky disco knees) – would even know who “Judy” was. Judy Garland. Played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, where, some claim, “friend of Dorothy” came from. You don’t know what that means? Garland is the archetypal gay icon: big voice, big life, pills, booze, many husbands, tragedy and Liza Minnelli as a daughter. And she sang Over the Rainbow, the ultimate song of gay freedom. And today we have the rainbow flag…
The National Portrait Gallery says that its new show will also exclude Joan Crawford, Mae West, Kylie Minogue, Dame Shirley Bassey, Oscar Wilde, Bette Midler, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Collins, Bette Davis, and Barbra Streisand. No Liberace or David Beckham. The selectors would argue it’s time to move on from these well-worn familiars. But the idea of a gay icon – usually a straight woman with a colourful career and chaotic personal life – took root at a time when gay sexuality was criminalised. Surely this exhibition should at least nod to that.
These intense women with their big hair and turbulent lives stood as symbols of glamour and self-expression. To ignore them is to dismiss some pretty serious bedrock of gay history. Take Garland out of the equation and how do you explain to a generation weaned on the notion and expectation of equality, and ignorant of the struggle for gay rights, the Stonewall riots, which Garland’s death dovetailed with? Will future homo-generations be denied the cackling pleasure of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Never know the significance of wire coathangers? “Judy” was the Ã¼ber-gay icon when I came out in the late 1980s. True, I thought she sang like she had a golf ball in her throat, but by some strange osmosis “Judy” seeped into your life.
The NPG list (not all the names have been released) is terribly brainy and right-on. These are not so much “gay icons” as the personal icons of a few. The choices are imaginatively contrarian and any attempt to recast a dusty canon is to be welcomed, but they are more heroes or crusaders than icons. Where once gay icons were appropriated for their drama and damage, the NPG list is mostly made up of the strong and politically commendable: Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Margarethe Cammermeyer, Harvey Milk, Peter Tatchell, Alan Turing, Virginia Woolf. At least Quentin Crisp, k.d. lang and Joe Orton cock a wittier snook.
Well, gays aren’t victims any more and neither are their heroes. But that means no more terrible outfits. No more drunken, teary slamming of doors. No more big hair and diamonds. No more barbiturate chasers. The omission of Judy is bad enough. I’ve just discovered Dusty Springfield hasn’t made it either. I’m handing back my membership card.