My boyfriend and I share a desk. We’ve decorated the walls on either side–the right side is his, the left is mine. His is covered with pictures–pretty flowers and barns, his family, quotes he’s copied out. My side is sparse. There’s a postcard from a rabbi who isn’t my rabbi but is nonetheless my favorite rabbi, a photograph of me with my beloved late godfather, and a picture from my childhood where I look queerer than ever in a pink fishtail party dress. But in the place of honor, right where your eyes fall when your head turns to the right, is a photograph of Judy Garland sitting at the piano.
She’s very young in this picture. It’s from the era when she and Mickey Rooney did all those musicals about kids putting on shows–Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band, Babes in Arms–so she can’t be more than seventeen. Mickey is in the picture, as is a man who I’m pretty sure is Vincent Minelli, and they’re looking at her. I think Mickey is speaking. They’re asking her for something, maybe, but she doesn’t look like she thinks she can give it.
As you can see from this obnoxious little essay about Judy on my wall, I’ve been thinking a lot about gay icons. When I say “gay icons,” I’m talking about something specific–not any woman who puts on a glittery dress and sings a torch song, but the women who touch my queer spirit in a way I find hard to speak. These icons have been on my mind because we lost one of them, at least in her earthly form, just a few days ago: Whitney Houston.
I don’t want Lady Gaga, with her impassioned but cookie-cutter assertions that it “don’t matter” that I have a “transgender life.” What is beautiful about the gay icon is subterfuge, silent recognition. Who knows what a presence out queer men had in the life of Judy before we fell in love with her music? Or Whitney? I don’t know, and while I’d find it interesting to find out, I don’t need that information to value her as the icon she is.
Gay icons are women with histories of pain and maltreatment, usually at the hands of men, who have come through that blues to emerge shining and powerful. Usually they long for a kind of release or recognition, often their dream is an escape. Whitney wants to know the truth about her lover’s feelings in “How Will I Know,” and she wants to be appreciated, to dance with somebody who loves her. Cher maintains her pride in “Half-Breed” in spite of stigma from both sides of her family. Cyndi Lauper isn’t afraid to show her true colors, Liza Minelli demands to be known as Liza with a Z, not any other letter, and her mother Judy naturally longed for somewhere over the rainbow.
In those stories, queer men feel a pang of recognition. And while no one exactly knows how this alchemy occurs–the icons themselves remark on it in pleased but puzzled tones–I venture that it has something to do with our communities legacy of silence. Gay icons tell our stories by not telling them. This is what Gaga is missing–to talk about our lives in self-serving terms of “I’m a good ally! Gimme a cookie!” is not the same as iconhood. She’d do well to do what I’ve been doing all week and watch Whitney Houston’s video for “Try It On My Own,” in which the star sings a soaring fuck you to a panel of old, stodgy producers, insisting upon her right to create herself. That’s queer.