The 12 Greatest Female Gay Icons of All Time

8.25.2014

By Michael Musto

Also: Nathan & Matthew back together on Broadway

Who says gay men don’t love women? We worship them, as long as they’re famous, talented, and have some kind of aesthetic that reaches out to our inner diva. So let’s bring on the femme adoration and celebrate the idols most worth gay-genuflecting in front of through eternity. The 12 most fabulous gay icons of all time (female division) are…

Judy Garland

The woman who could tear your heart out with a melody and some moist eyes, Judy appeals to the outcast in us, as we long to go over the rainbow and find acceptance and a pot of gold. Her pain surrounding “The Man That Got Away” also speaks to us, along with her love of guys with lots of eyeliner—sometimes to the point of marrying them! Judy’s vulnerability made her a quivering gay icon, as did the fact that for years, she kept on going, able to belt out one more song despite the rigors of the business that always tried to squeeze more juice out of her brilliance. Her death shortly before Stonewall links her forever to modern gay history. [Runners-up: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—especially together! And Tallulah’s always a trip and a half. Oh, and Marilyn was really pretty.]

Barbra Streisand
She’s a spunky, sassy superstar with a voice from the gods and a sense of humor so pungent it could only have come from an outcast who found herself center stage. Babs has long been the one we listen to, watch, admire, and imitate. There was that large road bump when she failed to get The Normal Heart produced, but maybe that worked out for the best since the lady doctor probably shouldn’t be the central character, lol. As she now tries to get a movie of Gypsy produced, the gays are getting weirdly excited again. [Special mention goes to the original Hello, Dolly! star, Carol Channing. Gays have always loved Carol’s saucer-eyed way of playing golddiggers and yentas. Before her parade passes by, no one should rain on it. Big kiss to Ethel Merman too—and to Liz Taylor, for her fabled career, staggering love life, and groundbreaking AIDS work.]

Bette Midler

“Bathhouse Bette” wowed toweled men at the Continental Baths and went on to a gigantic career as a star capable of both raunchy hilarity and heartbreaking pathos. She’s gone through periods of not being our favorite due to her varying moods and utterances, but overall, the breadth of the lady’s genius keeps her in the pantheon. You’ve got to have friends, and through the sheer force of her talent, Bette is still one of mine. [Another good Bette: Joan Rivers! When she asks, “Can we talk?” the gay answer is always “Can we listen?”]

Diana Ross

The smile, the saucer eyes, the vocal uplift...it all adds up to a diva gays love for the relentlessness of her sparkle. Add one great movie performance (Lady Sings The Blues), one fabulously campy one (Mahogany), and one legendary flop (The Wiz), and you’ve got a lady who’s definitely “the Boss”—and who still turns it out in concert after all these years. What’s more, she and the Supremes did a 1968 Funny Girl album which may be one of the most gay-friendly acts of cultural cross-pollination in history. No one rained on her Motown parade.

Beyoncé 

Gays love a pop diva with full-throttle sexuality and great moves, and Beyoncé remains the queen, cementing that when she played Diana—sorry, Deena—in Dreamgirls. But I have to give a special shout out to Kylie Minogue, who’s more cerebral than sexual, and who is a long-running gay bar favorite, whether in videos or in the flesh.

Liza Minnelli

Judy’s daughter has a lot of the same pipes, vulnerability, and love of gays as mama, though she’s carved her own niche of “truly terrific, absolutely true” musical storytelling. Ring them bells for Liza. Gays cotton to her festive spirit (“Cabaret”), her undrenchable sense of hope (“Maybe This Time”), her big-town mania (“New York, New York”; “City Lights”), and her lashes.

Madonna

A straight man’s fantasy as the Material Girl, she was also a gay man’s dream, seeing as she appreciated her rainbow-inclusive fan base, indulged in “voguing,” and had some closerthanthis lesbian gal pals. The anti-Judy Garland, Madonna appeals to gays because she’s not vulnerable and can’t be tackled. She’s tough, self-possessed, and radioactively in the game at all times. I’m scared a huh.

Lady Gaga

More than a Madonna mini-me, Gaga has taken advantage of the social networking skills and overall frankness of her generation to not only sing about gay rights, but to speak about them and really make a difference in the process. Her concerts are like gay pep rallies anchored by Gaga serving as a motivational speaker for LGBTs in training. For such a Little Monster, the woman is really quite adorable.

Marlene Dietrich

A bisexual temptress who ignited the screen (often in man’s—or gorilla’s—garb), Marlene had refreshing political leanings to go with her iconoclastic glow and bowler hat. Falling in love with Marlene again…always wanted to.

Candy Darling

As an Andy Warhol superstar, Candy exuded the breathy sexuality and wit to sear her into the LGBT legend forever. Her work was relatively obscure yet monumental. As she explained it, “I’ve had small parts in big pictures and big parts in small pictures.” The wispy blonde died of cancer at 29 and hordes came to the funeral, among them Gloria Swanson, saluting the coffin with her gloved hand (says her chronicler, Jeremiah Newton.) A nod also goes to Edie Beale, the riveting eccentric who summed up revolutionary costuming for all time in the classic 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. She was staunch.

Cher

After the apocalypse, there will only be Cher and a “roach” someone handed her in the ‘70s. The headdressed diva, who’s had chart hits in every decade starting in Cleopatra’s time, is a real-life fantasy figure with all kinds of talents, plus a fascinating life you couldn’t make up. Her lesbian daughter is now her son, and her fans include so many LGBTs that, if you’re at a Cher concert and the people to either side of you are straight, then you’re definitely gay.

Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Jodie Foster, Rachel Maddow, Gertrude Stein

I recently wrote about how gay men and lesbians don’t seek each other’s opinions enough, but when it comes to the above icons, the gay guys notice and bow down. Let me add to that rapture. Brava, divas.

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