10 legendary gay icons and how they earned their titles
by Marco Saveriano
June 24, 2018
The gay community has always supported fierce, outspoken women and men. These stars proved what it takes though to become a true gay icon.
The term “gay icon” is thrown around a lot lately, at least by members of the gay community. As soon as a pop star releases a dance single or pulls off some sickening stunt on stage, somebody is quick to pull the “gay icon” card. While there are many ways of earning that title, it usually involves years of dedication to the community that supported you, and proving that you care about them as much as they care about you.
Some of these stars dared to be different and let their freak flag fly, even when it meant they might be shunned. Some of them stood by the gay community in times of need, when others treated them like lepers. They put their careers at risk in order to support the community, and that’s dedication.
There is a whole new generation of gay icons, with the likes of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and even Ariana Grande all having a huge gay following who they’re so supportive of. But it’s important to know your history, and these trailblazers were supporting the gay community at a time when not many people were.
The Marvelous Miss M is a true gay icon for many reasons, from her foul, unrestrained mouth to her heavenly singing voice. But there’s a reason she’s called Bathhouse Betty!
After relocating to New York City in the ’60s, Midler started her career on Broadway, but it wasn’t her Broadway roles that got the gays going crazy for her (though that’s part of the reason why they love her now). In the summer of 1970, she earned her gay icon status when she started performing at a popular gay bathhouse in New York City. (Gay bathhouses are saunas where gay men go to have sex, in case you didn’t know.)
Accompanied by her pianist Barry Manilow, who she became very close with, Midler would light up the stage with her big voice and her even bigger personality. She quickly became a sensation in the New York gay scene, and once you’re big with the gays, you know you’re on way.
Midler spoke fondly of those days when she released her album Bathhouse Betty in 1998: “Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I’m still proud of those days. 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.”
Over the years, Bette Midler has remained a gay icon after a string of iconic movie roles (Hello, Hocus Pocus!), stage roles — most recently appearing on Broadway in the revival of Hello, Dolly! — and for still being a firecracker who isn’t afraid to speak out about what pisses her off, such as the current political climate in the U.S. You just can’t keep Bathhouse Betty quiet!
Cyndi Lauper may have sung about girls wanting to have fun, but she really should have said “Gays Just Wanna Have Fun!”
It’s no surprise that Cyndi Lauper would garner such a huge gay following. If you look at someone more contemporary, like Lady Gaga, the gay community tends to flock to the talented girls with quirky style and a clear connection to the LGBTQ community. And that’s exactly what Cyndi Lauper was.
Lauper came onto the scene with her bright orange hair and wild ensembles, and a great voice. She was seen as a trailblazer for women’s liberation, and she wasn’t afraid to talk about things that others wouldn’t. Her song “She Bop”, for example, was about masturbation, and who could forget her anthem, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”?
After her own sister came out of the closet, that’s when Lauper realized how difficult life was for LGBTQ people, and that’s what inspired her to become an activist for the LGBTQ community. Lauper has since co-founded the True Colors Fund, a charity which “works to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, creating a world where all young people can be their true selves.”
Lauper’s work on Broadway has also helped her grow her gay fanbase. She composed the music and lyrics for the hit Broadway musical Kinky Boots, which made it’s Broadway debut in 2013. Lauper went on to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score, and became the first solo woman to do so.
When asked about her gay icon title in an interview, Lauper became modest. While the title is just a title, Lauper is talking the talk and actually making a difference. “I don’t know if I’m a gay icon, but I do work in the community, and I work hard for civil rights,” she said. “I was working in the community anyway, and I didn’t want to just work there and not realize I could do something to help, as opposed to just being there. So, I stepped up.”
Nobody said this list would be only women, and there’s no man better to start off with than David Bowie.
Bowie was known for being an eccentric, androgynous, trailblazing rock star who wasn’t afraid of what people thought about him. He wore makeup and flamboyant stage costumes, and that’s part of why he became such a gay icon.
Decades ago, even if you were straight, you didn’t want to stray away from the norm, because then people would talk and it could ruin your career. Even a rumor about being gay could have ruined a rising star’s chance, but Bowie didn’t care.
Early on in his career in 1972, he declared in an interview that he was gay. Years later, in 1976, Bowie corrected himself in an interview with Playboy when he revealed he was actually bisexual. “It’s true — I am a bisexual. But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Bowie was right, he did use the fact that he was bisexual to his advantage. For years, he used his androgyny to keep people guessing. He enticed male and female fans, and he inspired generations of people to be different.
In 2002, Bowie was asked if he regretted his public declaration of bisexuality. While he didn’t feel like it was a mistake in Europe, he did feel like the “puritanical” United States didn’t react the same way, and he felt like it definitely stood in his way.
Whether he was vocal about his sexuality or not, Bowie would still be a gay icon due to his dedication to going against the grain and always preparing audiences to expect the unexpected.
Kylie Minogue is one of those pop stars who gained a gay fanbase for really no reason at all except for the fact that she was fabulous and gay fans adored her instantly. But over the years, she has nurtured her gay following into full-blown gay icon status.
Kylie’s impact is wildly underappreciated in North America. Most music fans in the U.S. and Canada may only know her for her version of “Locomotion” and her aptly titled single “Can’t Get You Head Of My Head” but she is so much more than those songs.
She started out on the Australian soap Neighbours before becoming a pop star with a huge following in Australia and across Europe. It wasn’t until the ’90s when her style started getting a little sexier that the gays took notice of Kylie. She was embracing her sexuality and breaking free from what people expected her to look and act like, and that struck a chord with the LGBTQ community.
The new millennium ushered in a new era of Kylie, and this time she re-appeared as a campy disco queen, and the gays loved her even more. Her videos lovingly included gay imagery, plenty of male eye candy, and she even fought to keep a same-sex kiss in the music video for “All The Lovers.”
She knew she had a loving, dedicated gay following, and she acknowledged that and catered to the fans who were with her from the beginning. In return, she also fought for equality for the LGBTQ community in her home country of Australia. In 2016, Kylie and her then-fiancé Joshua Sasse also vowed not to get married until everybody could get married.
It’s one thing for a pop star to embrace her gay following, and it’s another for them to fight for their rights. That’s what makes a true gay icon.
Boy George is a bit of a controversial choice, but his impact has made him a gay icon nonetheless.
Back in the ’80s, the lead singer of Culture Club caused quite a stir with his androgynous style. Much like David Bowie, Boy George didn’t adhere to what people thought a man should look like, and many people weren’t even sure if he was male or female. It was that questioning that made him such a phenomenon; he released hit songs and looked unlike anyone else on the scene, and the speculation and controversy only helped his star power.
Also like Bowie, George’s sexuality was often speculated in the media. Many assumed that his flamboyant attire meant he had to be gay, but he often ignored the question or gave a variety of answers to avoid stating the obvious. He did, at one point, say he was bisexual and had relationships with women as well as men, but that didn’t end speculation.
Of course, since then, George has said that he is without a doubt homosexual. He doesn’t consider himself gender fluid or anything like that, just a gay man with eccentric style. “Gender fluid suggests there’s the possibility of change and there really isn’t,” he has said. “I’m an old-fashioned gay man.”
Though Boy George has been seen as controversial in the past for his run-ins with the law and his struggle with substance abuse, it doesn’t diminish the impact he had on the gay community throughout his career. He was a pioneering force for androgynous styles, and despite receiving backlash, he never hid his eccentricities, even all these years later.
The gays love a diva, and that’s why stars like Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, and Mariah Carey are so revered in the community. But there’s one diva who out-divas them all: Miss Diana Ross.
Diana Ross already had a huge following from her time spent with The Supremes. The gay community, above all else, loves glitz and glamour, and Ross was known for her glamorous looks and big hair, to go with her even bigger personality. The gay community has always gravitated towards strong, talented women, so it wasn’t a surprise that she managed to gain a huge gay following.
The moment Diana Ross became a certified gay icon was when she unleashed the single “I’m Coming Out” into the world. While it wasn’t specifically about coming out of the closet, Nile Rodgers, who wrote the song for her back in the 1970s, explained the origins of the lyrics.
He was hanging out in an underground gay club in New York when he noticed not one, not two, but three drag queens dressed up as Diana Ross. That’s when he started thinking about the idea of Diana Ross coming out of the closet, if she was a gay man, and realized how it compared to her “coming out” after leaving Motown.
Thanks to Rodgers’ inspired idea, Diana Ross was hailed as a gay icon. Whatever the lyrics were intended to mean, the LGBTQ community recognized their significance and related to them, and just like that, a gay anthem was born. To this day, Ross is still a drag favorite in clubs around the world.
Speaking of divas, here’s a male diva whose legacy will never be forgotten.
Freddie Mercury never publicly confirmed that he was gay, but instead, playfully joked about it for years. He may not have been “out of the closet” but he was always fearless on stage and in music videos. He wasn’t afraid of sequin bodysuits, deep plunging necklines, bright colors, or feathers.
He also wasn’t afraid to show off his feminine side. In the music video for Queen’s “I Want To Break Free,” Mercury and the rest of the band all appear in drag. Mercury also appears in drag in the music video for “The Great Pretender.”
Many claimed that Freddie was open about his sexuality to those close to him, and just didn’t talk about it in the media. In Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury, the authors note that when Mercury reportedly told Mary Austin, a woman he’d call the love of his life, that he was bisexual, she replied, “No Freddie, you’re gay.”
Mercury had relationships with men as well as women, and was rumored to be a bit of a “scene queen” in London. It seems like it was always a really badly kept secret, or that everyone knew and chose not to care.
The singer was always in on the joke, and he didn’t care what people thought of him. He had one of the greatest voices the music industry has ever heard, and a stage presence that is unparalleled (sorry Adam Lambert, we still love you), and the fact that he was able to be as iconic as he was while being as flamboyant as he was is truly a testament to his talent.
What’s unfortunate is that one of the biggest queer voices in history left us so soon. Mercury died at the age of 45 of AIDS-related illnesses, after having only revealed to the media that he was suffering from AIDS the day before. There’s comfort, at least, in knowing that he will forever be immortalized as not only a gay icon, but a music icon.
There are a few names that immediately come to mind when you think of the term “gay icon” and Madonna is definitely one of them. She’s such a legendary gay icon that a lot of people may not even know why at this point, but it definitely wasn’t an accident.
When Madonna was young and living in Michigan, she was first introduced to the gay community by her dance teacher. He introduced her to nightclubs and gay bars and even encouraged her to follow her dream to New York City. Is anyone surprised that it was a gay man who first saw that spark in Madonna and knew she was destined to be a star?
Once she got to Manhattan, Madonna was a regular on the club scene, which is where she was introduced to the voguing scene, which of course went on to be the focus of one of her biggest hits, “Vogue”. Madonna was bringing a light to the gay community early on in her career, a move that could’ve been career suicide, but instead made her an icon.
During the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, a time when most people were distancing themselves from the LGBTQ community, Madonna stuck by them. She had many friends who were affected by the disease, and of course, she knew it was a cause that was directly linked to her fans. She wasn’t afraid to speak out about the disease that was ravaging the gay community and even donated proceeds from the last American tour date on her Blonde Ambition tour to the nonprofit organization amfAR, dedicated to her friend Keith Haring who died of AIDS.
She has since been a very active voice for LGBTQ rights, including marriage equality and the horrible treatment of LGBTQ people overseas.
Aside from her work towards equal rights, Madonna also earned her gay icon status because of — of course — her music and performances. She wasn’t afraid to embrace her sexuality, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and she gave the gay community music they could dance and sing along to. What more could you ask for?