The Definitive List Of The Top Twenty Four 'Gay Icons' | Jive in the [415] Blog | Gay LGBT News Political Commentary

December 8, 2021

The Definitive List Of The Top Twenty Four 'Gay Icons'


A portrait of the gay icons Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Rivers, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, Madonna, Cher, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand,  Olivia Newton-John, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper, Janet Jackson, Kylie Minogue, Kathy Griffin,  Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Belinda Carlisle, Stevie Nicks, and Catherine O’Hara, by Roy Steele.
Gay Icons - The definitive list of the top twenty-four gay icons.

By Roy Steele

It won't come as a shock to anyone when I say I'm a friend of Dorothy

I was messing around and trying to create a realistic portrait of Judy Garland, the first and most prominent gay icon in history, and shared a draft with my dear friend Matthew Newman who lives in South Africa. He gave me positive feedback and suggested that I do more portraits like it - so I gave it a whirl!

Am I an artist? After taking a class in graphic design, I taught myself advanced graphic design through trial and error using online resources, and I learned HTML coding and web design the same way in order to maintain my blog and create the beautiful graphics you see here for my blog posts. It was a lengthy struggle creating these portraits and while some were done in a day, others took days and days.

Creating artistic portraits of gay icons mandated that I understand what defined a gay icon, and then who should be included in a list, so I started my research by searching with Google. I was surprised to find that I couldn’t find a published comprehensive list of gay icons anywhere online.

I’ve been asked more than once in my life to describe who and what a gay icon was. It got me to thinking, how do we define a gay icon, and who would be included if we made a list of the top gay icons today. 


A portrait of the first gay icon Judy Garland by Roy Steele.
Judy Garland was the first gay icon.

How would you describe the requirements or qualifications that someone must have in order to be described as a “gay icon” in the LGBTQ community?

I don’t and didn’t know. That’s why I thought tracking down a definition was important. By finding the right definition and criterion for inclusion on the list, we can assess the merits of who is included.

Merriam Webster's Dictionary  states that an icon “is a person widely admired especially for having great influence or significance in a particular sphere.”

We have fashion icons, pop icons, sports icons, civil rights icons, gay icons, cultural icons, and many more.

Gay icons are unique and different because they aren’t gay. They’re widely admired for being cultural icons who love, respect, and acknowledge their gay fanbase.

Portraits of gay icons Dolly Parton, Madonna, and Olivia Newton-John created by Roy Steele.
Gay Icons Dolly Parton, Madonna, and Olivia Newton-John.

I was curious and looked up the gay icon definition in several different places. I found the worst definition at Wikipedia. They don’t get it and wrongly claim that a gay icon is a public figure “regarded as a cultural icon of the LGBT community.”

A gay icon is a public figure who is regarded as a cultural icon of the LGBT community.

I believe that Wikipedia’s  description is lazy, vague, and inarticulate. The LGBTQ community is large and diverse, and we have a smorgasbord of entertainers, celebrities, and cultural icons that we love and admire. Wikipedia  goes off the rails entirely in their next paragraph. [bold emphasis my own]

The most widely recognized gay icons are often celebrities who garnered large LGBT fanbases, such as Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher, and Lady Gaga. However, the term is also applied to politicians, authors, and other historical figures deemed relatable to LGBT causes.

Firstly, no matter what pronouns we use, or whether we describe ourselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, our community is NOT a cause. Suggesting that we only revere and lionize people supporting “LGBT causes” is idiotic, just plain wrong, and dehumanizing.

During my research, I discovered that politicians, authors, and other historical figures are almost never described as gay icons, and we never describe men that way (whether gay or straight). Nor do we include any members of the LGBTQ community. While Elton John is a gay man, a cultural icon, and an immensely talented musician and philanthropist, he isn’t a gay icon.

I was surprised to find that a gay icon is always a woman. Then I set out to discover what traits that our gay icons have in common with each other. Aside from their success, talent, celebrity, and beauty, the one attribute that each woman shared with each other was being ambitious and rebellious. Most of them were underdogs who overcame the odds and found success.

That’s how I came to define a “gay icon” in this way.

A gay icon is a beautiful, glamorous, spirited, talented, rebellious, trailblazing woman over fifty, who achieved success in the entertainment industry by taking risks and carving her own path to success through hard work and sheer determination.

The definition of a gay icon is a beautiful, glamorous, spirited, talented, rebellious, trailblazing woman, who achieved success in the entertainment industry by taking risks and carving her own path to success through hard work and sheer determination.
The definition of a gay icon.

I consulted, researched, argued, debated, and discussed with countless people how to define a gay icon, as well as who should be included on a definitive list. Regardless of what anyone might think, every single person on this list meets the criterion as I defined it.

Our gay icons are imperfect women who sustained long and successful careers. They are all famous performers. Actors, comedians, vocalists, musicians, and recording artists, are represented in the list and they’re largely all household names. Some of them are long gone. Some succumbed to their demons while others overcame them. We love these broads for a plethora of reasons, and they love the gay community too.

Journalist Sara Clements wrote A Look at Joan Crawford and the Gay Icon Phenomenon for Much Ado About Cinema and echoed that we love these dames warts and all.

The women given the title of “gay icon” are chosen because they are relatable; they are survivors. They are seen at their best, and at their worst. According to author Daniel Harris, worshipping these women helps members of the gay male community get in touch with their masculinity the way sports does for straight men. Gay men saw these women participate in a sport where their feminine qualities triumphed over the masculine, and as Harris wrote, “beneath all those layers of cosmetic beauty lies the kind of true grit John Wayne never knew.”

I want to stress that my list is a starting point for a discussion. While I’m sure that my list will piss some people off, remember that it’s subjective and it’s my list. Having said that, I’d be happy to discuss the merits of who I’ve included at any time.

A portrait of gay icons Bette Midler, Cher, and Barbra Streisand, created by Roy Steele.
Gay Icons Bette Midler, Cher, and Barbra Streisand.

The inclusion of the first seven gay icons was easy and took little thought. They’re deceased and their inclusion is inarguable. Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Rivers, and Whitney Houston, were all cultural icons and gay icons.

It’s well documented that Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Whitney Houston, battled substance use disorders, and Joan Rivers’ husband and manager tragically ended his life when she was at the apex of her career.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were both brilliant actors and Hollywood stars, who were controlling, imposing, competitive, obsessive, and haunted by each other. The 1962 film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane  starring Davis and Crawford is a campy black comedy and thriller that has entertained legions of gay fans over the years and cemented their status as gay icons.

We love our gay icons with all of their flaws, not in spite of them.

Except for Judy Garland, the women are listed in no particular order. Even though many young people today have no idea who Judy Garland is, she earned her spot at the top of this list. I’m happy and proud to admit that I’m a “friend of Dorothy”, which refers to Judy Garland’s role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. A “Friend of Dorothy” is gay slang for a gay man and Judy Garland was the first gay icon in history.

Cher, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Olivia Newton-John, Debbie Harry, and Stevie Nicks, are all formidable women in their seventies, and they're all still working! Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Janet Jackson, Kylie Minogue, Kathy Griffin, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Belinda Carlisle, and Catherine O'Hara are fierce women too. We love them all.

A portrait of gay icons Janet Jackson, Kylie Minogue, and Cyndi Lauper, created by Roy Steele.
Gay Icons Janet Jackson, Kylie Minogue, and Cyndi Lauper.

I have to acknowledge that defining a gay icon as a woman over fifty years old wasn’t arbitrary. Over time the list will expand to include AdeleBeyoncĂ©, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, and many many more.

One thing is certain, when we idolize a cultural icon and they’ve been elevated to gay icon status, they’ll be a gay icon forever.

Here is the jiveinthe415.com list of the top twenty-four gay icons.

GAY ICONS

  1. Judy Garland
  2. Bette Davis 
  3. Joan Crawford
  4. Elizabeth Taylor
  5. Marilyn Monroe
  6. Joan Rivers
  7. Whitney Houston
  8. Diana Ross
  9. Madonna
  10. Cher
  11. Dolly Parton
  12. Bette Midler
  13. Barbra Streisand
  14. Olivia Newton-John
  15. Debbie Harry
  16. Cyndi Lauper
  17. Janet Jackson
  18. Kylie Minogue
  19. Kathy Griffin
  20. Mariah Carey
  21. Mary J. Blige
  22. Belinda Carlisle
  23. Stevie Nicks
  24. Catherine O’Hara 

Feel free to leave a comment about this list, and let me know if you think I left someone out!

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