Icon (from Greek eikon or “image”) is a person who represents important qualities. In Gay folklife, icons are artists, activists, and heroic individuals who are seen as examples worthy of emulation and adoration. Icon may also extend to images, texts, objects, performances, and songs deemed representative of the LGBTQ community.
In religious art, icons are Eastern Christian-styled images of Jesus and saints, especially Mary as Theotokos (Greek: “God-Bearer”). They are portrayed in ways that emphasize their holiness and otherworldliness, often with symbols, gestures, or letters of the Greek alphabet that represent different qualities or refer to stories about them. There tends to be deliberate avoidance of three-dimensional representation in icons (reflected in the flatness of the typical icon) based on the Biblical command not to worship images, and reinforced when Eastern Christian territories were systematically conquered by Muslims whose religion forbids veneration of any images, three-dimensional or otherwise.
Despite the prohibition against worshipping images, icons in Christianity may gain great value as representations of certain groups and nations. Certain towns in Europe have their own icons in which the image of the saint or Jesus is linked to the place where it is venerated. This tradition continues on a larger scale with icons such as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a national symbol of Poland, or nontraditional ones that do not conform to Eastern Christian standards, such as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a national symbol of Mexico.
Popular icons are often replicated, leading to variations that may take on new meanings in different places. One version of the Madonna of Czestochowa is found in Haiti and represents multiple personas, including the Polish Black Madonna, Saint Barbara Africana in Roman Catholic iconography, and the Haitian Vodou Goddess Erzuli Dantor, patroness of single mothers and Lesbians.
Western Christian art has images that are iconic in the LGBTQ community as well. Michelangelo’s statue of David and images of Saint Sebastian (a handsome young man dressed in a loincloth, arms bound behind him, and pierced with arrows) are icons emblematic of Gay men’s erotic desire, marking another intersection of religious and Gay sensibilities.
Within the Gay community, icons come in a range of categories, including activists, athletes, scholars, actors, singers, DJs, criminals, media figures, porn stars, models, saints, gods, and homophobic people. The majority of popular icons can be divided roughly into five overlapping groups: classical, heroic, diva, dykon (dyke-icon), and camp.
Classical icons (usually taken from ancient Greece and Rome) include historical figures such as Sappho, the poetess from Lesbos who wrote love poems to women, and mythical figures such as Ganymede, youthful male cupbearer and lover of Zeus. Heroic icons include activists such as Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Bayard Rustin, and Frank Kameny. Mark Bingham, the rugby player who helped fellow passengers on Flight United 93 fight back against terrorists who had hijacked their plane, became a post-mortem iconic hero. Others, such as Matthew Shepard, Sakia Gunn, and South African Endy Similane, became icons due to the cruel treatment they received at the hands of homophobic people.
Diva icons are performers chosen for their singing/acting talent, glamour, and tragic circumstances, as is the case with Judy Garland, whose influence on the Gay community was so great that friend of Dorothy (“Dorothy Gale,” Garland’s character in the camp classic movie, The Wizard of Oz) is synonymous with “Gay.” Divas include born-male LGBTQ artists such as Sylvester, Dana International (Israel), Azis (Bulgaria), and Bülent Ersoy (Turkey).
The vast majority of divas are Straight women such as Mae West, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor (England), Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Cher, Grace Jones (Jamaica), Gloria Estefan (Cuba-USA), Annie Lennox (Scotland, Britain), Madonna, Janet Jackson, Katherine Ellis (Britain), A-mei (Taiwan), Hande Yener (Turkey), and Lady Gaga. Dykons tend to be assertive rather than glamorous or tragic, and may or may not be Lesbian, such as Indigo Girls, Joan Jett, Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, Lucy Lawless (New Zealand), and Ellen DeGeneres. Others are icons in the Women’s music scene, such as Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Toshi Reagon, Holly Near, Maxine Feldman, and June Millington.
Camp icons are often remembered more for their audacity, transgressiveness, and outrageous presentation. these include the Village People, home-care expert and convicted felon Martha Stewart, Christian televangelist Tammy Faye, Doctor Frank N. Furter (transsexual evil scientist from the Rocky Horror Picture Show), and Christian anti-Gay crusader Anita Bryant. Camp itself is iconic for some male comedians in a tradition of cross-dressing that goes back to Bert Savoy and kept alive by artists such as Milton Berle, Flip Wilson, and Hawaiian comedian Rap Replinger. Others will add elements of camp such as wigs and boas without fully cross-dressing, such as Matt Yee.
Sex Symbols and Drag Icons
Actors, models, and athletes are often sex-symbol icons: Ryan Reynolds (Canada), Tyrone Edmond (Haitian, who took “Tyrone” for his professional name in honor of a friend who died from AIDS), Hugh Jackman (Australia), David Beckham (England), Lee Byung Hun (South Korea), and Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan (India) for Gay men, and Lucy Lawless, Jodie Foster, Martina Navratilova (Czechoslovakia), Stephanie Adams, and Kate Moennig for Lesbians. Current Gay sex-symbol icons tend to be different from those in the past because, regardless of sexual orientation, they gladly accept being Gay icons without hesitating, never adopt a homophobic posture, and if Straight, never express fear that they themselves would be perceived as homosexual.
In terms of performing in drag, James Dean, Elvis Presley, and gangsta artists such as Tupak and Snoop Doggy Dogg have become iconic figures for drag kings and studs (biological females who perform masculinity onstage). For drag queens, divas are iconic and worthy of emulation. Some drag artists have become iconic in their own right, such as the kings Luster Dela Virgion, Carlos Las Vegas (Canada), and Elvis Herselvis, and the queens Bert Savoy, José Sarria, the Lady Chablis, and Ru Paul.
Within the Circuit community, some DJs, divas, performance artists, promoters, and participants have achieved iconic status. DJ Peter Rauhofer (1965-2013) from Austria was one such icon who achieved renown for his live sets and remixes. Rauhofer’s *69 Records influenced electronic dance music at the end of the twentieth and the first two decades of the twenty-first centuries.
Doris Day Parking
There are folk terms kept in the Gay community in honor of its icons, such as Doris Day parking. Actress Doris Day (who won the hearts of the Gay community when she unflinchingly supported Rock Hudson after he revealed he had AIDS) would star in movies where she would often pull up to destinations in her car and park right in front, something that is rare in many urban settings. “Doris Day parking” refers to obtaining a coveted parking spot in front of the desired location.
Ballroom Legends and Icons
In urban Ballroom culture, those artists who have brought in new styles and dance to the runway are called “legends” and “icons,” terms reflecting the influence of Hollywood on the Ball scene that indicate the successful presentation of extraordinary glamour. Icons vary from city to city, but some New York City Ball icons have gained national and international status, such as Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Paris Dupree, and Kevin Ultra-Omni.
Although “icon” is usually reserved for people, “iconic” can apply to movies such as The Wizard of Oz, theatrical performances such as Rent, moments in history (Stonewall Uprising), and songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “We are Family” by Sister Sledge, “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls, “Fighting for Our Lives” by Holly Near, and “High” by the Lighthouse Family (an anthem dear to members of the Circuit community). Iconic symbols include the rainbow and labrys. Geographic locations may also become iconic, such as the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park in Manhattan, the town of Eresos on the Isle of Lesbos (home of Sappho), and the Homomonument in Amsterdam.
Curry, Ramona. Mae West as Cultural Icon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1996.
Peraino, Judith Ann. Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig. Berkeley: University of California, 2006.
Simpson, Mark. Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture. New York: Harrington Park, 2002.