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Our 20 all-time favorite gay icons
An A-Z of some of the significant gay and gay-friendly personalities of our time

by Donald Miller

What makes a gay icon? It’s a combination of elements: identity, talent, style, timing and the message the individual sends out to the queer audience. If it’s one gays and lesbians identify with, it assures the individual a devoted legion of fans — sometimes even beyond the artist’s own mortality.

We’ve assembled here a list of what we feel are the top 20 gay icons of all time. Most of them are gay — but a handful are straight and a couple are somewhere in between. Regardless of their sexual orientation, they’re all individuals that in some way or another have reached out to the LGBT community.

Boy George

George O’Dowd was born June 14, 1961, in Eltham, Kent, England. He first rose to notoriety in the band Culture Club along with bandmates Jon Moss, Mikey Craig and Roy Hay. The band skyrocketed into international success in 1982 with the number one hit, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” followed by “Karma Chameleon” in 1983. Over the years he’s battled drug addiction and tamed his massive-maned drag queen look down to a tempered alterna-queer style. These days he travels the globe working as a highly sought-after club DJ.

Cher

Born Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre on May 20, 1946 in El Centro, Calif., her career took off in the 1960s with husband Sonny Bono and such hits as “Baby, Don’t Go” and “I’ve Got You Babe.” Although Sonny & Cher became very popular with a hit television series, Cher was destined to make it alone.

The couple divorced in 1975, but remained friends and shared custody of their daughter Chastity.

Cher would marry rocker Gregg Allman later in that same year. They had a son, Elijah Blue, before this marriage ended in divorce in 1978.

In the eighties Cher moved in to film, capturing plum roles in “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” “Mask,” “Moonstruck” and “Witches Of Eastwick,” among others.

She’s been a favorite of the queer community for decades — especially on the dance floor with such hits as “Take Me Home” and “Believe,” which proved that you can still have a number one hit song after the age of 50.

Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford came into this world March 23, 1904. Born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, she struck out for Hollywood in the mid twenties and appeared in a handful of silent films like “Sally, Irene and Mary” and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” before hitting it big in talkies with films like “Grand Hotel” and “Letty Lynton.” Throughout much of the 20th Century she made quite a name for herself as an actress, appearing in more than 100 films over a six-decade period. Other notable roles include “A Woman’s Face,” “Possessed,” “Mildred Pierce,” “Sudden Fear” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” She reportedly romanced Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe.

After her death in 1977 daughter Christina published “Mommie Dearest,” a tell-all tome about her nightmarish experiences growing up as the daughter of the volatile actress. That book would become an enormously unintentionally camp film classic, forever enshrining Crawford as a gay icon.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis was born Ruth Davis on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Mass. After a modest start on Broadway and a handful of forgettable films, she skyrocketed to fame with her role in “Of Human Bondage,” her first critically acclaimed hit. Her role in “Dangerous” led to her nomination for a Best Actress Oscar. She became the first Warner Brothers actress to win the coveted award. The list of cinematic accomplishments under this woman’s belt is massive — “Jezebel,” “Dark Victory,” “Now Voyager,” “All About Eve,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” to name just a few. Davis died in 1989.

Ellen DeGeneres

DeGeneres started out as a stand up comic and made several guest appearances on various network TV shows before landing the role on the series “Ellen” (1994-98) that would make her a household name. She eventually came out in real life and on the series before its cancellation in 1998. A highly publicized relationship with actress Anne Heche ended abruptly, followed by another romance with actress/photographer Alexandra Hedison. These days she’s involved with former “Arrested Development” co-star Portia di Rossi and riding high with an extremely popular daytime talk show.

Divine

He’s been gone 17 years now — but it still seems like yesterday that Divine, a rather hefty and notoriously camp drag queen, was making the rounds of the gay clubs in the U.S. performing her dance hits “I’m So Beautiful” and “Native Love,” among others. But that’s not what he was best known for. Born Harris Glenn Milstead on October 19, 1945, in a suburb of Baltimore, Md. he would later connect with a handful of other counterculture thespians who would eventually capture worldwide attention for their efforts in a series of underground films. Many of the films Divine would appear in were directed by John Waters. Most notably, “”Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble,” “Polyester” and “Hairspray.” Divine was finally on the verge of mainstream success after landing a regular role on the series “Married With Children.” Regrettably — at the age of 42 — he passed away before shooting began.

Melissa Etheridge

Rocker Melissa Etheridge was born May 29, 1961, in Leavenworth Kan. Her self-titled debut album hit music stores in 1988. It spawned the hit single “Bring Me Some Water.” Three more albums would follow before Etheridge’s fourth release would prove to be her massive commercial breakthrough. Tired of rumors and questions regarding her sexuality, Etheridge decided to put the speculation to rest once and for all, titling the album “Yes I Am.” The album produced the hits “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window,” would sell more than six million copies and captured a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal. Following a failed relationship with actress Julie Cypher, she became involved with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels. The two wed in California on Sept. 20, 2003.

Etheridge has long been an advocate for coming out of the closet, but her most recent actions at the annual Grammy Awards revealed the strength the woman truly possesses. Battling breast cancer and fighting the side effects of chemotherapy, she performed onstage completely devoid of her once massive ash-blond mane in an effort to bring attention to the plight cancer patients face.

Judy Garland

Born Frances Gumm on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minn., Garland’s stormy life and vibrant talents as an actress and singer would endear her to queer fans around the globe. She was thrust into the limelight with the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” (ironically a flop at the time but considered a classic today). She would star in several of the “Andy Hardy” films opposite Mickey Rooney and appear in such grand MGM classics as “Easter Parade” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” It was perhaps her role in “A Star is Born” that would fully capture the range and versatility she was truly capable of. Other standout films include “Judgement at Nuremburg” and “I Could Go On Singing.” Garland died from an accidental drug overdose on June 22, 1969, in London, England. Many LGBT historians think that her death one week prior to the Stonewall Riots in New York was a contributing factor in the uprising against police by many of the city’s queer community.

Elton John

Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947, in London, England, Elton John is one of pop music’s great survivors and — quite possibly — the most well known gay person on the planet. His musical career began in the late ‘60s, although he would not achieve musical stardom until the 1970s with such hits as “Levon,” “Rocket Man,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and a host of others. At 58, he’s still an active performer, touring the globe and continuing the fight against AIDS and lending his weight to fight for LGBT equality in the states and abroad.

k.d. lang

Nov. 2, 1961, marks the day Canadian lesbian vocalist extraordinaire k.d. lang came into the world. She would later burst on toAmerica’s music scene in 1986 with the release of “Angel with A Lariat.” Her second album, “Shadowland,” was recorded in Nashville in 1987 and was produced by Patsy Cline’s producer, Owen Bradley. She won the Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, and had her first top 25 hit in the summer of that year with “Full Moon Of Love.” In 1990 she came out in an interview with the Advocate, and surprised fans with her next release, a pop endeavor that included the chart topper “Constant Craving.” lang’s most recent release was the CD “Hymns of the 49th Parallel.” She reportedly continues a long-term relationship with former Murmurs singer and actress Leisha Haley.

Madonna

Hailing from Bay City, Mich., singer, actress and media queen Madonna was born Aug. 16, 1958. She first caught the world’s attention in 1982 with the dance single “Everybody.” She followed up with such notables as “Physical Attraction,” “Holiday” and “Borderline.” The list continues with among others, “Like A Virgin,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Crazy for You,” “Live to Tell,” “Express Yourself,” “Cherish,” “Keep It Together” and “Vogue.” Her most recent musical endeavor is 2003’s “American Life.” Although she’s appeared in a number of films, among them “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “A League of their Own,” “Who’s That Girl,” “Evita,” “Dick Tracey” and “The Next Best Thing,” her career as an actress has never quite taken off. No matter, queer fans still adore her for her sense of style, gift of reinvention, musical talent and her liberal outspoken views.

Bette Midler

Still as hot and sassy as ever at the age of 59, Bette Midler was born Dec. 1, 1945, in Honolulu, Hawaii. She kicked off her career in the early ‘70s performing in San Francisco bathhouses for audiences of towel-clad gay men. Her first album “The Divine Miss M” was produced by Barry Manilow (released in 1972) and included the hits “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Do You Wanna’ Dance.” The following year Midler won the Grammy for Best New Artist. Over the years she would release several more albums, including “Thighs and Whispers,” “Divine Madness,” “No Frills” and “Some People’s Lives.” Hit singles abounded, like “From a Distance” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Her latest musical endeavor — once again with Barry Manilow — is “The Rosemary Clooney Songbook.” Simultaneously Midler conquered the world of film, starring in movies like “The Rose,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Ruthless People,” “Outrageous Fortune, “Beaches,” “Drowning Mona” and “Isn’t She Great?” Her most recent film appearance was in “The Stepford Wives.”

Liza Minelli

Daughter of actress and singer Judy Garland, Liza Minelli was born March 12, 1946 in Los Angeles, Calif. Minelli’s long been a gay fave — beginning with her role in “Cabaret” and subsequent films like “New York, New York” and “Arthur.” In the late ‘80s she recorded the Pet Shop Boys-produced dance music smash “Am I Losing My Mind?” Appearing at the 1993 March on Washington, she’s long been an advocate for the LGBT community. More recently she’s appeared in the series “Arrested Development” and is currently at work on the Parker Poser-Paul Ruud film “The OH in Ohio.”

Martina Navratilova

International tennis giant Martina Navratilova was born Oct. 18, 1956, in Revnice, Czechoslovakia. She defected to the United States in 1975 to escape Czech interference in her professional tennis career. Already successful at the time of her defection, Navratilova continued to win major tournaments, including consecutive Wimbledon championships in 1978 and 1979. She dominated the women’s professional tour during the mid-1980s, winning four United States Open titles, three Australian Opens, two French Opens, and six more Wimbledon titles. Navratilova held the number one ranking in the world between 1982 and 1986, earning a reputation for her strength, tenacity, and court savvy. She was outed by reporter Steve Goldstein of the New York Daily News July 29, 1981, although it had very little impact — if any — on her career.

She’s been actively involved in the fight for LGBT equality, making appearances at the ’93 and 2000 marches on Washington.

Diana Ross

The queen of Motown was born March 26, 1944, in Detroit, Mich. The world first got to know the diva in the mid ‘60s as the lead singer in the girl trio The Supremes. She would go on to have a successful solo career with such hits as “Touch Me in the Morning” and “The Boss.” She even recorded one her most successful hits specifically for gay fans and friends — “I’m Coming Out” was one of Diana Ross’ biggest hits and continues to receive club and radio play the world over. In films she’s appeared in “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Mahogany” and “The Wiz,” among others. In recent years Ross re-made the classic gay anthem “I Will Survive” and included RuPaul in the video, along with a host of other crossdressing divas. Now 61, she maintains a relatively quiet life.

RuPaul

When RuPaul was born November 17, 7:58 p.m., at Mercy Hospital in San Diego, Calif., his mother told the nurse, “His name is RuPaul Andre Charles and he’s gonna’ be a star ‘cause ain’t another mother fucker alive with a name like that!” Seems mom wasn’t too far off the mark. After spending years as an underground club performer in Atlanta and New York, RuPaul was unleashed on the world in 1993 as a six-foot-seven blonde-haired, black drag diva singing the smash club hit “Supermodel (You Better Work).”

The ball started rolling when MTV picked up the slickly-produced video that accompanied the song. Although subsequent musical efforts have not fared as well, RuPaul has remained in the spotlight to varying degrees, appearing in feature films like “The Brady Bunch Movie” and hosting his own series, “The RuPaul Show,” on VH-1. These days RuPaul works as a morning radio host in New York and makes frequent appearances as a guest DJ.

Barbra Streisand

Most recently actress and singer Barbra Streisand, now 63, returned to the screen in the film “Meet the Fochers.” She was born April 24, 1942 in Brooklyn, N.Y. She first caught the public’s attention in 1963 when she appeared on Broadway in the play “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.”

Immediately thrust into stardom for her performance in an otherwise forgettable play, Streisand would conquer the worlds of music, film and television as a singer, composer, producer, actor and director. Her list of infamous film credits include “Funny Girl,” “Hello Dolly,” “A Star is Born,” “Yentl” and “Nuts.” She’s been the consummate activist and supporter of the LGBT community for many years and is mother to her own gay son, Jason Gould.

Sylvester

The disco-drag singing sensation that brought us such hits as “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real” and “Do Ya’ Wanna’ Funk” was born Sylvester James on Sept. 6, 1947, in Los Angeles, Calif. After moving to San Francisco in the early ‘70s, Sylvester hooked up with a drag band of Haight-Ashbury gay hippies known as The Cockettes. Although he performed with them regularly and appeared in their underground film “Tricia’s Wedding” (as Coretta Scott King), Sylvester had his sights set on something higher.

By 1974, he had split with the troupe and formed Sylvester and the Hot Band, a group that consisted of four straight white rockers fronted by Sylvester in drag. Sylvester’s big break came in 1978 with the album “Step II,” which featured the smash hits “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real” and “Dance Disco Heat.” He would go on to produce several albums and appear in the film “The Rose” as a drag queen friend of Bette Midler’s Janis Joplin-esque character. Sylvester died from AIDS complications on Dec. 16, 1988, in San Francisco, Calif.

The Village People

In 1977 disco producer Jacques Morali came up with an idea to create a group of male singers that captured the stereotypes of queer culture he had encountered in New York City’s Greenwich Village. After numerous auditions, the Village People were born. The men that would become famous for such notable dancefloor ditties as “Macho Man,” “YMCA” and “In the Navy” were Randy Jones (the cowboy), David Hodo (the construction worker), Ray Simpson (the cop), Glenn Hughes (the leatherman) and Felipe Rose (the Indian). These days, the group is still together — loosely — although Hughes died March 4, 2001 and Randy Jones left the group permanently in the late ’90s.

Andy Warhol

Internationally famous pop culture artist Andy Warhol was born Aug. 6, 1928, in Forest City, Penn. In the early 1950s he got his start doing sketches for Glamour and later moved on to work for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Along the way he designed numerous book jackets and holiday greeting cards. By 1960, he began to make his first paintings, based on comic strips like “Dick Tracy,” “Popeye” and “Superman.” In 1962, he made paintings of dollar bills and Campbell soup cans and his work was included in an important exhibition of pop art, The New Realists, held at Sidney Janis Gallery, New York. He would go on to conquer New York nightlife and produce such cult classic films as “Chelsea Girls,” “Bad” and “Trash” while screenprinting the faces of the famous — like Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Diana Ross. Warhol died Feb. 22, 1987, in New York City following complications from gall bladder surgery.


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