Judy Garland. Grace Kelly. Dolly Parton. Bette Midler. Elizabeth Taylor. Cher. Cyndi Lauper. Madonna. Quick – what do they all have in common?
They’re all female. They’re all famous entertainers. And they’re been granted membership in the exclusive “gay icon” club, either for their glamour, flamboyance, camp, or strength in the face of adversity. And most of them have given the love right back to the gay community. Bette Midler was known for performing at gay bathhouses. Cyndi Lauper has dedicated her annual “True Colors Tour” to political activism for LGBT rights. Even Tammy Faye Messner (who, when she was married to Jim Bakker, was known as “the ultimate drag queen”) said in her last interview with Larry King that, “When I went — when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.” The gay community is unflinchingly loyal to its icons, and most icons have expressed gratitude for that.
Except, perhaps, Donna Summer.
Summer, who died of lung cancer this past week at age 63, was most definitely a member – albeit a potentially unwilling one – of the “gay icon” club. Her “gay icon” title went hand-in-hand with her reign as the “Queen of Disco.” What made Summer different, however, was that she never embraced the gay community, and at one point in her career she was accused of making overtly homophobic remarks. In the midst of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Summer, who by then had become a born-again Christan, allegedly told a group of fans that AIDS was a punishment from God for the sinful lives of homosexuals. Although Summer subsequently denied that she ever made such a comment, the damage had been done, and, as the gay community turned away from her in protest, her career never fully recovered from it. Even so, headlines all over the country stated this:
“DONNA SUMMER, DISCO QUEEN AND GAY ICON, DEAD AT 63.”
So why was Donna Summer so revered by the gay community, even though she was never a champion of LGBTQ rights? As superficial as this might sound, I actually think that Donna Summer – and other gay icons – have a very important place in the psychological development of our LGBTQ identities. In order to connect the dots on this thought process for you, I need to go back in time a little – specifically, back to 1979 – and give a little psychological history lesson.
In 1979, a newly-minted Australian psychologist by the name of Vivienne Cass published a paper in the Journal of Homosexuality titled “Homosexual Identity Formation: A Theoretical Model,” a paper that established what is now the fundamental theory of gay and lesbian identity development. Her six-stage theory outlines the sequence of events that many lesbian and gay people go through as they come to terms with their sexual orientation. One of the reasons her theory is so widely utilized is because it recognizes the importance of finding community. According to Cass, in order for gay and lesbian people to fully accept and embrace their sexual identities, they need to move out of social isolation – for social isolation breeds self-alienation. They need to meet other gay and lesbian people and become part of the gay community.
In the pre-Stonewall era, finding community wasn’t an easy task. Gays were persecuted during the Holocaust in the 1930s and ’40s, and during the McCarthy “Red Scare” era in the 1950s. Their sexual behavior was criminalized by sodomy laws, and pathologized by the psychiatric diagnostic system of the era. It just wasn’t safe to be out – that was the bottom line. Given that reality, it’s no wonder that some of the most quintessential gay icons, like Judy Garland, emerged during that time. In a climate of invisibility, where it was nearly impossible to find openly gay or lesbian role models, validation was found in the tragic lives of Judy Garland, or James Dean (iconic “stone butch” in the 1950s lesbian community), or numerous other public figures.
The Stonewall Riots, however, were a game-changer when it came to finding community. In the 1970s, after the Stonewall Riots had taken place, a more visible gay community began to take shape, and the gay liberation movement gained momentum. And yet, even with the shifting political and cultural climate, there weren’t too many places you could go to find other gay and lesbian people. Think about it. If you think you might be gay, and you’re really struggling with this possibility, and it’s, let’s say, 1978, where would you go to find other gay people?
A gay bar or gay club.
And what kind of music was being played at the time in these gay bars and clubs?
And who was the Queen of Disco?
Donna Summer may never have deliberately courted the gay community. But her music was in the right place at the right time. Her music defined the club scene of the 1970s, and it provided a backdrop for gay and lesbian people who were trying to connect with other people like themselves. Despite her alleged comments during the AIDS crisis, Summer’s music has made its indelible mark on gay culture – and, I believe, on gay identity development.
Dim all the lights, and rest in peace.