Kylie Minogue, Cher, Britney Spears, Beyoncé… What do all of these stars have in common?
They are all hugely popular with the LGBTQ+ community, and they are publicly heterosexual.
The concept of ‘gay icons’ – a term used to describe public figures regarded as cultural icons by the LGBTQ+ community – is nothing new. But, what makes somebody a gay icon, and how does a cisgender, heterosexual celebrity become LGBTQ+ royalty?
The camp factor
There isn’t just one answer here. A number of factors can come into the picture – and camp appeal is a big one.
Camp, according to various dictionary definitions, describes things as being ‘exaggerated’ or ‘dramatic’, often with an amusing edge. It can apply to aesthetics, fashion, behaviour and performance style – all things which seem to seriously influence whether somebody reaches gay icon status.
“These celebrities like Kylie Minogue are tapping into camp dynamics and campness, which is a big theme in a lot of LGBTQ+ culture that of course shapes a lot of popularity they have,” explains Dr Rosie Nelson, a sociologist of sexuality and gender at University of Bristol.
Many LGBTQ+ people also seek representation in popular culture – something that is sometimes found in cis heterosexual artists.
“The reality is that LBTQ people often are not equipped with idols, they often are not born into a family with LGBTQ+ role models in it,” says Nelson.
Dr Milly Williamson, a senior lecturer in media and anthropology at Goldsmiths, says: “Back in the days when homosexuality was illegal, there were no role models. Often the straight characters [we saw in pop culture] would have hidden LGBT connotations.
“This created a history of audiences appropriating those figures, appropriating straight characters who seem to speak in some way to LGBTQ+ identities,” Williamson continues. “There still aren’t that many gay icons and gay celebrities.”
Allies and champions
Williamson adds that “people from whatever community need to feel a sense of visibility – and that lands in celebrity culture,” she says. “It is inevitable that people will seek out icons and figures.”
It makes sense that when it comes to heterosexual artists who become gay icons, they will often also be people who stand for the LGBTQ+ community and are strong allies. Many celebrities who are openly supportive of the LGBTQ+ community – like Madonna, the late Elizabeth Taylor and even Princess Diana – have gained gay icon status.
“Madonna’s work is an embracing of sexuality and joy, she did some good work to showcase gay men within things like the Vogue music video, showing the ballroom scene,” explains Nelson.
For many, allyship is a key part of the picture.
“It saddens me that we often see straight, cisgender women given the title of gay icon for no more than the fact that they enjoy the support of our LGBT+ community,” says Amy Ashenden, interim CEO of LGBTQ+ youth charity Just Like Us.
“However, it’s always so incredible to see people like Dannii Minogue stepping up their allyship by donating song proceeds to a brilliant LGBT+ charity, as well as women like Lorraine Kelly and Jade Thirlwall who have been vocal about the need to support trans people.
“In times where 72% of trans young people have faced verbal abuse in the past year, we desperately need more proactive allyship,” Ashenden adds.Mutual understanding
There is also often a mutual understanding between members of the LGBTQ+ community and celebrities who have experienced adversity or discrimination – particularly females.
For example, when asked about her own gay icon status back in 2020, Minogue told The Australian newspaper: “Part of it is the music, part of it may have been a theory I explored, that I wasn’t wasn’t always given the easiest of times back then… And I wonder if part of that coming together was an understanding of not being accepted for who you are.”
Williamson says there can be a sense of being “united by struggle” that comes into play between gay icons and LGBTQ+ fans.
“That sense of connecting with people, icons whose troubles are overt, is really important and makes them relatable,” Williamson explains.
“The melodrama of existence is written largely in their very public life story, the inverse of the troubles and pains of people being forced into the closet. It gives voice to a pain that is hidden in the queer community.”
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