Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Judy, Liza, Barbra, Bette, These are Names I Shan't Forget"...The Evolution of Gay Icons

During one story line in Will and Grace, Will and Jack are tasked with helping Karen's cousin Barry become a nuanced gay as he comes out.  The story has four parts, all with the central title "Fagmalion."  Fagmalion is a reference to the George Bernard Shaw book Pygmalion.  In the book Henry Higgins makes a bet he can turn a woman with a cockney accent and turn her into a proper lady and fool the duchess at her ball.  As Barry yearns for his lazier straight days and tries to learn gay culture Will and Jack give him a mantra to help further him along and it goes like this  "Judy, Liza, Barbara, Bette, These are Names I Shan't Forget."

Lately there have been numerous articles written about Judy Garland no longer being a gay icon.  I say rubbish, but more about that in a bit.  Last night while I went to show tunes night at D Bar in Boston the night was consumed with lots of fun musicals including more recent stuff from Glee, Camp, and Next to Normal.  The DJ also played lots Judy, Liza, Barbara, and Bette! From "Happy Days are Here Again/Get Happy" with both Babs and Judy to lots of variety show performances from Bette.  I have to state this before I go any further, I know not all gay men are interested in musicals therefore they may not love these women (odds are they one but just don't want to admit it).  I also know each letter of the alphabet within the LGBTQA and more have their own icons.  At the moment I am solely focusing on the loss or passing the torch of icons for males.

Recently the New York Times and had articles talking about the death of Judy Garland as a gay icon The New York Times piece written by Robert Leleux entitled  "The Road gets Rougher for Judyism's Faithful" discusses his interaction with his friend Brodie who is his 30s who does not get Judy's iconic status within the gay community.  Robert convinces his friend Brodie who knows only about The Wizard of Oz and that "clang clang" song to go see "End of the Rainbow" which recently opened on Broadway and shows the last  brutal days of Ms. Garland.  Robert poses the question to Brodie essentially "Is she an icon?"  His reposne is just this:

“Not to me, she isn’t,” Brodie said, after the show. “I mean, I know she used to be important to gay guys, but I don’t see what she has to do with being gay anymore, except she did sort of remind me of Whitney and Lindsay and Britney. You know, train wrecks. The whole play was like that YouTube video where Britney goes after that car with her umbrella. Some gay guys do seem to like that kind of thing.”

In the past men who were gay would playfully refer to themselves as "Friend of Dorothy or FOD" with thoughts like Brodie's does this mean the iconic queen of the past is gone? The answer is fully formed, there are yes and no elements as well, but I would say her time is not done.  When I was talking to my friends last night one said "The young gays just don't who she is anymore" and "they do not know the others either" (referring to Barbara Liza, and Bette.  Yet at every show tunes night in every city that holds that event these women are lauded with numerous numbers.  With that I also noticed not as many gay men singing these songs because they did not know the numbers.  I am guilty of not knowing a Liza and a Bette number myself (gay gasp).  This is allowed.

Shows like Glee center around two Broadway obsessed teens who love these women.  Kurt and Rachel did a wonderful duet to "Happy Days are Here Again/Get Happy."  Yet younger viewers most likely watch to hear Santana belt Adele or Britney rock it out to some Beyonce.  I do not discredit the shows strong theatre fan base who love these moments that pay tributes to these icons, but the most successful songs have not been the Broadway tunes, or the ones from these great ladies.  So even though this show pushes them into relevance, they lose traction to younger music once again. 

Why are these women's fame and iconic status within the community fading?  Simple answer, people do not know their history.  As the AIDS/HIV epidemic wiped out a large number of men we have lost many of our storytellers who could have shared their love, joy, and laughter about their own past, and their experiences with the wonderful women, like Judy Garland.  

Of course there are numerous people around to still tell her story.  What made her and others like her an icon for our people?  Some say its because she was married to a gay man, Vincent Minelli, Liza's dad.  Other's sight her music and songs spoke to our community.  "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is poignant song about hope that things will get better.  The rainbow is a symbol for the gay community and together these elements combined make her another person who when gay men had to stay hidden they could listen to her music and long for a better place.  The Advocate writes " Her concerts were major gay meeting places, and in her later years, she made money singing at gay piano bars. Garland's father was gay, as were her studio-executive mentor and two of her five husbands. She had many gay friends and went to parties where she joked that she was the only woman present. But her appeal was based on more than her own acceptance of gays." It was also said that the famous Stonewall riots erupted because of her death. All of these elements represent something incredibly timely and important that have passed down to future icons from Judy's daughter Liza to Barbara, Bette, and all the way to Lady Gaga.

In today's society people are much more open about being gay than they were in Judy's days so many will argue that her message, and what she represents has faded.  Gaga is the new ally she fights for her little monsters.  Yet in a world where there is countless teenage suicide still, homelessness, and many other issues I can't help but wonder if the ultimate icon, Ms. Garland should be pushed further into the forefront.

If all Robert Leleux's friend Brody sees this woman as is some pill popper like Lindsay Lohan (which Judy was a pill popper) than I think he is missing the bigger message.  While every person, forget celebrity has their issues.  Judy Garland is the first gay icon; she is the queen who spawned not only her daughter, but she paved the way for other celebrities like her.  Garland made it cool to be a "Friend of Dorothy." and while her legend may be fading we need to remember where things started and never forget that simple mantra "Judy, Liza, Barbara, Bette, These are Names I Shan't Forget."


Anonymous said...

Icons indeed. So much so, that one expects it to be common knowledge, that it's Barbra, not Barbara!

William said...

This is an article that I reread often, probably because it makes me sad.