The Who’s Who of Gay Icons: 13 Hall of Famers You Should Know
It’s easy to think of icons as perfect creatures, people living a life we could only access in our dreams. But the word comes from the Greek eikenai, meaning “to resemble.” And that’s how someone becomes an icon—we see ourselves in them.
From Hollywood stars to blue-blooded royals, the queer community has no shortage of gay icons to idolize. Here are 13 of our absolute favorites.
1. Marie Antoinette
Ever wonder what inspired Lil Nas X to rock a mile-high blue wig in the “Montero” music video? That’s royalcore, baby, and it’s all thanks to the lavish lifestyle of the original queen of fabulosity, Marie Antoinette. From Madonna to Raja, Marie’s royal legacy has lived on through a long line of the fiercest queens. Let them eat cake, indeed.
2. Oscar Wilde
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, the beloved, flamboyant 19th-century Irish author, said: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” A proud dandy until his death, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor for the crime of homosexuality in 1895. And if the lipstick kisses covering his tomb in Paris are any indication, he still has more than enough people talking about him to keep his memory alive.
3. Judy Garland
The Wizard of Oz came out at a time when “queer” still meant “odd,” so the friends Dorothy met in Oz weren’t necessarily queer by today’s standards. But that didn’t stop the film from influencing gay slang—in the 1950s, one way to ask if someone was gay was to say, “Is he a friend of Dorothy?” Dubbed the Elvis of homosexuals by The Advocate, Judy Garland once told daughter Liza Minnelli (another favorite female icon) that at her funeral, she envisioned gays singing “Over the Rainbow” and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half-mast. Garland’s 1969 burial coincided with the start of the Stonewall riots. Coincidence? We’ll let you decide.
4. Freddie Mercury
The queerness of legendary band Queen’s lead singer wasn’t exactly a secret. As a father of glam rock and androgynous style, Freddie Mercury dressed flamboyantly, bringing looks from New York’s underground gay club scene to mainstream fashion. He was also one of the first celebrities to lose his life to the AIDS epidemic, but in the spirit of Queen’s hit “Don’t Stop Me Now,” he continued creating music until four months before his death. What you may not know is that the Tanzania-born Mercury’s birth name was Farrokh Bulsara. And as both a Persian and Indian, he’s the first BIPOC LGBTQ icon on our list.
5. Barbra Streisand
Before she became a film, music, and Broadway legend, Barbra Streisand took her first paying gig at The Lion, a gay club in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Gay men's influence on her life, look, and career is undeniable, from Barry Dennen, the songbird’s ex-boyfriend and champion (who later came out as gay), to Bob Schulenberg, who helped create the signature cateye we’ve all come to know and love. Beyond the massive gay following Babs has amassed over the years, she came out in support of her gay son in 1999, proving she’s not just here for profit. The rest, as they say, is herstory.
6. Diana Ross
When Diana Ross first played “I’m Coming Out” for Frankie Crocker, one of the world’s top radio personalities at the time, he delivered a searing prediction: The song would ruin her. Songwriter Nile Rodgers credited Diana-dressed drag queens for inspiring the tune, so the DJ wasn’t off base when he pegged “I’m Coming Out” as a gay anthem. But he was wrong about what its release would do to her career. The song made the top five after its release in 1980, securing Ross’ spot on Pride playlists—and in the hearts of gay people.
7. Diana, Princess of Wales
If not for the paparazzi (and maybe Camilla), our gay icons list would have its second bonafide queen in Lady Di. But Diana knew she wasn’t meant for the throne. Why? “Because I do things differently, because I don't go by a rule book, because I lead from the heart,” as she once famously told the BBC. Is there any greater queer ethos than that? In 1987, Lady Di shocked the world by shaking the hand of a patient with HIV. And the globally mourned humanitarian was played by not one but two queer women in recent retellings of her life: Emma Corrin in Netflix’s The Crown and Kristen Stewart in the Oscar-nominated Spencer.
The Queen of Pop has been the queen of our hearts since the 1980s, when her lyrics and public image flew in the face of conservatism. Lesbian icon Ellen DeGeneres even credits the songwriter for giving her the push she needed to come out in 1997. From her AIDS activism to the drag queen ballad “Vogue,” Madonna was the MTV era’s original gay icon.
9. Lady Gaga
In 2012, Russian authorities threatened the other Queen of Pop with arrest if she spoke about gay rights at her show in Moscow. Her response? “Cuff me, Russia!” Lady Gaga’s fearless activism for the LGBTQ community secured her place as a hero of queer people everywhere, inspiring her fanbase (and the rest of the world) to embrace and celebrate inclusivity, gender fluidity, sexual diversity, and self-expression.
Before Lady Gaga, there was Cher, a long-time champion of LGBTQ rights. Cher’s music is a core part of her legacy—you’d be hard-pressed to find a Pride playlist that didn’t include her 1998 hit “Believe.” But this diva’s advocacy for the gay community began when she was just nine years old. And when her son Chaz came out as trans in 2009, Cher had two choices: Shun your son, or practice what you preach and accept him. You can probably guess which option this legend chose.
11. Mariah Carey
When pop diva Mariah Carey stepped up to the mic to accept GLAAD’s 2016 Ally Award, she gave her own interpretation of what LGBTQ stands for: legendary, gorgeous, beautiful, tantalizing, and quality. We love this superstar’s captivating campiness, her shameless shadiness, her soprano scream as glass-shattering as a Stonewall brick. We love her for her gay anthems, for albums like "Rainbow" that give an undeniable nod to the queer community. But most of all, we love her take-no-bullshit stance on homophobia, cementing her place in the gay hall of fame.
12. Britney Spears
If Madonna and Gaga reign together as the Queens of Pop, they’ve clearly co-parented well, bringing up the Princess of Pop to continue the fight for LGBTQ rights. (Gaga is younger than Britney Spears, but who’s counting?) Over the years, Spears has given us danceable songs and an undying love for the queer community. GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis called her “a force in the music world who has used her global platform to share messages of love and acceptance, something the world needs today more than ever.” It’s allyship, bitch.
13. The Babadook
Perhaps the most unexpected (and most memed) gay icon of all time, the Babadook began as a run-of-the-mill monster in the 2014 horror film of the same name. But while writer and director Jennifer Kent might have created him with the hope of inspiring terror, queer people detected a beauty within him that the rest of the world failed to see (sound familiar, Mom and Dad?). The Babadook is a gay Diva with a capital D. And when a straight-laced mother and son try to oust him from his safe space just because he’s a little different, he does what any self-respecting gay would do: He stands his ground.
Make your icons proud
When it comes to gay icons, the LGBTQ community is in good supply. And since every queer person’s list will look a little different, Who’s your favorite gay icon? is a great question for a first date.
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