I decided to do a response to the Gay Icons exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery which was, in the end, somewhat predictable, both in terms of the people asked to choose and the icons they selected. I haven’t seen the exhibition or all the portraits included and neither have I, for my own list, agonised over what constitutes a ‘gay icon’. My reasoning is that since I'm gay, anyone who is an icon to me is a gay icon. Simple. Some of my choices are there at the National but I’m certain my reasons are more interesting than whatever possessed Elton John to include Graham Taylor, for instance. Looking back at these choices I realise that what unites them is not that they make me proud to be gay particularly, and not all of them are gay, but that if I wasn’t gay I might not be able to understand or admire them as much as I do, and in every case that would be a sad, sad thing.
His laziness and utter lack of materialism are more revolutionary now than ever. ‘I can’t afford to be gay’ would be an alien concept to him. His absolute resolution and clarity about his own homosexuality was such that, in all innocence, it took some time for him to truly grasp that he was an aberration in the world. Hence my favourite part of the filmed version of The Naked Civil Servant is when his mother’s friend enquires, ‘You’re not one of those who doesn’t love women are you?’ and Quentin replies, ‘Well that’s just it, I don’t think anybody does’. Aside from anything, having seen a generation documented in art who either killed themselves or vanished into loveless heterosexual lives/lies, followed shortly by a generation that died as punishment for sexual liberation, it’s just nice to see a gay man who was honest to goodness old.
Poster-boy for the National exhibition and significant in all sorts of ways. While poor Lou Reed was sent upstate by his parents in an attempt to have his homosexuality fried out of him, the impossibly beautiful, effortlessly masculine and heterosexual Joe took his place on the throne of New York’s sexual underbelly as number one object of desire. Muse to Reed, Gerard Malanga, Paul Morrissey and Warhol himself, his passivity in terms of the ruthless gaze he was forever under was in itself utterly seductive. After several years fucking around for cash and/or art with people of many genders he eventually professed that, in terms of cock, he eventually just got a taste for it, and that kind of sexual liberation put his kaftan-and-marijuana peers right back into their dressing-up boxes.
‘I remember very well the fact that Joyce Grenfell was standing on the stage on her own. I loved the fact she was peopling the stage with nothing but words. She was an inspiration, not just because she was good but because it put the idea in my head of a woman standing on stage on her own and that was a very powerful image’
‘What do you think are the main themes of Othello, Sarah?’
‘Erm, I don’t think it’s got one really, it’s just various people talking … and sometimes they do things in brackets’
‘I saw you today, well I just saw your blazer
and it went through my heart like the beam of a lazer
and I thought that today you would turn round and see me but you didn’t’
‘Oh God, oh God, there’s no piano! Barbara where are my tissues?’
‘Look, I love Blue Peter but even I can’t make a piano out of a box of tissues’
‘I have wasted years behaving
in a way I thought was ‘proper’
and it’s hard to do
no-one cared, no-one knew’
‘Hormones, they’re those things you don’t know you’ve got till you run out of them’
‘Like split peas?’
‘Well yes, except if you run out of split peas you don’t go red and grow a moustache’
‘I wouldn’t bank on it’
Her written output of the last twenty odd years has surpassed and outlived even polari as the true lingua franca of the British queen. Her work covers the same ground as Alan Bennett and Morrissey and like them she shares a wry, self-aware and vaguely tragic outlook that outside of the North is called camp. You only have to post a one-liner on Facebook to watch the gay, tickled and word-perfect hordes come following: ‘Her ears are in the wrong place for a polo neck …’ ‘He died whilst falling under a bus …’ ‘Grey eggs, is that an Arab custom..?’ ‘Suede-effect pochette packed to the drawstring with handy-sized oddments …’ ‘Are they to have porridge ..?’ Ad infinitum, but never ad nauseum.
‘Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary’. When Kim Deal answered this advert, The Pixies, the second most important band ever to come out of America, were born. Hüsker Dü have been relegated to a lesser status in musical history but New Day Rising remains a key artefact of 80s punk/indie/hardcore. At the band’s helm was Bob Mould, the quiet, unassuming but committed axeman/songwriter with an addictive personality and fruitfully depressed creative streak. After Hüsker Dü fell apart, his new band Sugar managed to ride the tail of what was by then called grunge, but really was the new American antidote to heavy metal that Bob Mould had helped create. Beaster and Copper Blue are classics of the period, while his later album Workbook is, in my humble opinion, one of the best solo albums recorded. Bob is gay, out, never bleats too much about it but was a key player in a world where I, as a naïve teenager, never thought gay men could be. A few years ago he contributed ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’ to an album supporting gay marriage in the States. The song was already written and recorded with Sugar but the title and lyrics became extra-poignant in their new context:
‘And all throughout the years
I never strayed from you my dear
But you suspect I'm somewhere else
You're feeling sorry for yourself
Leaving with a broken heart
I love you even still
If I can't change your mind
Then no one will’
Judy Garland and Sylvia Ray Rivera
Arnie Kantrowitz once described first hearing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ as ‘Like hearing the national anthem of a country of which I didn’t yet know I was a citizen’. So no Kylie, no Dusty and no Barbra in the official line up ... but no Judy? Come off it. ‘Art’, wrote Toni Morrison, ‘makes another thing possible’, and Judy’s death was every bit as artful as her life, which is to say, lonely, hard work and with little satisfaction. What could be more gay? What her death made possible, in a majestically camp and karmic way, was a partial galvanisation of queeny hysteria into the window-smashing rage of the Stonewall riots.
Okay it’s partly an urban myth but it’s beautiful and it’s ours. Sylvia Ray Rivera, New York street transvestite and one of the original and most committed of the Stonewall Bar rioters, commented that on hearing of Judy’s demise, ‘I decided to become completely hysterical’. There are centuries of queer wit and insight in that phrase: ‘I decided to become completely hysterical’. Most importantly, there is agency, the agency of the fag in heels who isn’t going to take it any more. The days of rioting that followed Judy’s death turned New York City upside down for gay people. The link with her death is poetic license of the sort that might never occur to any kind of person but one who can readily translate the loss of a lonely old chanteuse into political revolt and burning dustbins in Greenwich Village.