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People with a History: An Online Guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* History

Lesbian and Gay Icons

Editor: Paul Halsall



Lesbian and gay cultures in the twentieth century have established a number of figures as "icons". These figures, drawn from popular culture, have functioned within lesbian and gay culture in a number of ways: first they have been fantasy figures in which lesbians and gay men have seen aspects of  their own lives; second, they have provided the basis for a common subcultural knowledge.

Although, for gay men, it is female stars who predominate, just to be a female star will not make a figure an "icon" - Ingrid Bergman for instance was never an icon. And, although some icons had gay links [e.g. Joan Crawford's reputed lesbian relationship, Liza Minelli's gay husband], homosexuality as such is not really an issue in a star achieving iconic status.

Gay Male Icons: US and Britain


  • Judy Garland
    Reason for Icon Status: A unique combination of vulnerability and strength. She was probably the most famous of all gay icons, a status she knew about and acknowledged. Her Carnegie Hall concerts in the early 1960s were major meetings of gay men. Her death days before the Stonewall Riots has been cited as part of the reason for intense emotions among the NY gay community in June 1969.
    In a 1967 interview Garland summed up her life in words which show just why she appealed to the oppressed  gay men of her time: "When you have lived the life I've lived, when you have loved and suffered and been madly happy and desperately sad - well, that's when you realize that you'll never be able to set it all down. . . maybe you'd rather die first."
    • Yahoo!: Judy Garland links
    • Judy Garland Page
    • Judy Garland: The Concert Performances
      An amazing site which documents, with full text press reports and contemporary pictures, all of Garland's concerts. These press reports in many cases provide documentation for the gay male cult that surrounded her.
    • Press Reports of Judy Garland, Carnegie Hall Concerts, 1961
      From the Concert Performances site: the press reports refer with amazingly little subterfuge to the gay male audience. The New York Times noted "It was to be truthful, surprising that this audience was able to muster the pandemonium it let loose when Miss Garland wound up with 'The Trolley Song,' 'Rock-a-Bye' and included among her encores 'Over the Rainbow' and 'Swanee.'"
    • Press Reports of Her Death
      The UPI report of her make includes an account of the rainbow colored funeral wreaths, a 21 year chef who (in 1969) brough a battery powered tape recorder playing Judy songs to the wake, and and interview with a 21 year old male model. 5,000 people lined up outside the chapel.
  • Ethel Merman
    Reason for Icon Status: Merman was not beautiful, but succeeded on what she did have - the biggest and brassiest voice of all.
  • Marlene Dietrich
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Bette Davis
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Joan Crawford
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Edith Piaf
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Liza Minelli
    Reason for Icon Status: Liza is Judy's daughter, but that is not the only reason for her following [Lorna Luft, Garland's other singing daughter is not an icon]. Her stage performances are highly mannered, liable to failure, but bold and brassy nevertheless. She also married a gay man (Peter Allen - who died of AIDS), and has long supported gay causes.
  • Mae West
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Barbara Streisand
    Reason for Icon Status: An "ugly" girl from Brooklyn, rejected and unloved by her family, grows up to realise here own inner and outer beauty - and demands the world recognize it. Oh, and the greatest popular music interpreter/singer in English.
  • Julie Andrews
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Madonna
    Reason for Icon Status:


Gay Male Icons: US

Although US culture pervades much of the world outside its borders, there remain some aspects of American culture which are virtually unknown overseas. This includes a number of gay icons.

Gay Male Icons: Britain

Hollywood provided a common set of icons for both British and US gay cultures. There are also entirely homegrown aspects of British showbusiness. Inevitably some of the female figures became icons for British gay culture.

  • Shirley Bassey
    Reason for Icon Status: Although she plays, and fills, American halls regularly, Shirley Bassey is not a   major American gay icon. For British gay men, however, she is among the greatest.
  • Kathy Kirby
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Lulu
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Cilla Black
    Reason for Icon Status:

Coronation Street
A long running British TV soap opera [since 1960] set in working-class Manchester. Several of its stars achieved cult status for British gays.

  • Coronation Street
  • Pat Phoenix [Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street]
    Reason for Icon Status:
  • Julie Goodyear [Bet Lynch in Coronation Street]
    Reason for Icon Status:

Gay Male Icons: Other Countries

  • Additions/Suggestions accepted
    Compiling a page such as this requires a certain degree of subcultural knowledge! I have access to this for the UK and Britain, but not for other countries. I would be interested in suggestions for such figures, suggestions which include the following information
    • Name of iconic figure
    • Country in which icon status is appreciate
    • Reason for icon status
    • any known links, other information

Lesbian Icons

  • Additions/Suggestions accepted
    Compiling a page such as this requires a certain degree of subcultural knowledge! I have access to this for gay male subcultures, but much less for lesbian subcultures. Note that I am not looking for Lesbian *stars*, but for figures who have acquired the status of icon, comparable to the Judy Garland cult of gay men. Inlcude
    • Name of iconic figure
    • Country in which icon status is appreciate
    • Reason for icon status
    • any known links, other information
  • Patsy Cline
    Reason for Icon Status:

General Discussions


Academic Bibliography

Books are articles about the sociology and history of lesbian and gay subcultural use of iconic figures. Texts about the icons themsleves [biographies, etc.] are excluded.

  • Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, (New York: Macmilla, 1987). Contents: Introduction - Monroe and Sexuality - Paul Robeson: Crossing Over - Judy Garland and Gay Men.
  • Suggestions taken

This page is part of  People with a History. People with a History is a www site presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through primary sources, secondary discussions, and images.. People with a History: An Online Guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* History is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 12 March 2023 [CV]