Friday, July 24, 2009

Highlighting Summer (What Makes a Gay Icon?)

Yesterday, I reread a tribute article about Heath Ledger. When he died, gays were particularly effusive in praising him and embracing his legacy. That got me wondering, How does someone become a gay icon? Especially when they are not gay themselves. Sure Heath Ledger played a gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain”, but so did Jake Gyllenhaal. I don’t see Jake having the same status amongst gays. Even if he suddenly died—tragically at that. (And I would contend Jake is at least as good looking as Heath. Check out the promo shot for his new movie, "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time", in the July 24 issue of Entertainment Weekly.) Jake's got the acting chops, too. (I just did a check and he, not Heath, won the ultra prestigious MTV Movie Award for Best Performance. Heath and Jake shared the coveted Best Kiss honor.)

But this isn't about Heath. Or Jake. I started thinking back to one of my first entertainment idols, back when I was twelve. Did all fortysomething gay men grow up gyrating in the basement to the pulsating beat of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”? (Once, maybe twice, I mimicked the rhythm by plucking a rubber band. That part couldn’t be gay, could it? Geeky, yes. Unfortunately, I can't find the original version on YouTube. It seems everybody's got a remix or a hokey, sit-on-the-stool-in-the-family-room cover. Hey, listen to--er, watch--this gay-pleasing version of "I Feel Love" on YouTube. You won't see where the elastic comes in because there is a clapping effect instead. You won't care. Trust me.)

To a kid who was almost a decade away from the club scene, what drew me to a singer whose biggest album was “Bad Girls” a concept album paying homage to female prostitutes? I didn’t know a thing about drag queens back then so that couldn’t have been the link.

I didn’t know anyone who openly identified as gay at the time. I hadn’t yet figured out my sexuality. All I knew was every part of my existence felt awkward. Why did I take solace in all things Donna? Nobody observed my feeble batter’s stance during agonizingly long beach baseball games and suggested that I should stay inside and listen to a danced up version of a song about leaving a cake out in the rain.

Yet somehow I knew. Donna Summer was my idol. I had all her albums and the poster that came with “On the Radio” was displayed prominently in my room.

Right beside an oversized montage of Olivia Newton-John writhing in water with dolphins.

On a surface level, I was passing for straight. Gorgeous women adorned my walls. But why did I hang posters of Donna (and Olivia), not of Farrah? (My parents refused to let me watch “Charlie’s Angels” because they felt it was risqué. Oh, I’ll bet they wish they could have a do-over on that one! Might have even slipped a Beta video of “Debbie Does Dallas” under my pillow.)

I realize I am painting with an awfully broad stroke when I link Miss Summer with gay men of a certain age. Still, I think many of us connected with her. What drew us to disco instead of Pink Floyd? Somehow Summer fit.

It seemed to be destiny how I met my first love years later at a gala celebration to honor volunteers of AIDS Project Los Angeles. As an AIDS buddy in the early 90s, I had to attend monthly sessions with a facilitator to ensure that each of us felt supported as we, in turn, supported an APLA client. During a retro disco dance, I hovered in the background safely mixing with other volunteers who were already taken. When the DJ announced it was the last dance he played—what else?!—Donna Summer’s Oscar winning song. My facilitator came out of nowhere, grabbed my arm and tugged me onto the dance floor. I stood there, feeling awkward—somehow that never really went away—while he rushed off. Moments later, he reappeared with one of the APLA employees. “This is John,” he informed me. “You two really need to get together. Now dance.” We did. And we did.

The love didn't last, but Donna did. She continues to release new music. Some of her songs apparently still hit the dance chart. I find them on YouTube, listen a few times and that’s that. Like all aspects of pop culture, Donna Summer’s star has faded. But, on a Saturday night when I have nothing going on—and there are many such Saturday nights—I will often dig through my CD collection, passing over the ones by Barry Manilow, the Divine Miss M and Babs, and put on vintage Donna. Yes, the cake is gone and I will never have that recipe again, but Donna can still whet my appetite.


Ron Klopfanstein said...

Dimming All The Light
Extremely well-written post. What makes someone a gay icon is a question that seems to go back as far as the 1950's. Back to a dark, oppressive age when the earliest stirrings of gay identity were emerging in underground "homophile" organizations like The Mattachine Society.
Historians debate whether grief among the still underground gay community in New York City over Judy Garland's death Led to the Stonewall Rebellion and the "Enough is Enough" point (pun intended) for the Stonewall's patrons and many gay, lesbian and transgendered within "rioting distance." Current opinion says that the two were unrelated, but one can imagine those brave men an women who fought the NYPD for days (with practically the whole world against them) were inspired by the nearly unsinkable Ms. Garland who fought so many battles for her own freedom and sacrificed so much to see for herself if there was a place for her "Over the Rainbow."
So many years, so many battles for equality and a decimating plague have come and gone, or in the case of AIDS; come and continued to especially haunt our community. Sometimes we pull together; all to often we pull apart and fight each other when the real source of our troubles are big enough to require a united front.
When that self-destructive streak manifests itself and threatens to divide the community. It seems that gay icons emerge to offer us all; gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, questioning and of course, our straight allies, a chance to unify beneath The Rainbow Flag, close our eyes and dream of a thorough and lasting freedom as Gloria Gaynor sings, "I Will Survive," Ellen dances, a "Will & Grace" repeat plays on the TV screen, gay candidates win elections and break "pink ceilings" on the job, same-sex partners get married and children are raised up right in households with "two mommies" or "two daddies."
But, for the past thirty years it's been "The Queen of Disco" whose timeless music has inspired us to soar above the ignorance, the hate and to conquer our own personal battles with the bigotry that metastasizes every time we push forward. But, push forward we do with the disco beat of a Donna Summer classic playing in our heads; galvanizing our determination. She's been there for us and through her music always will be.
Donna Summer, Eternal Queen of Disco, May your trip to Heaven have been as glorious as your voice with every star in the sky twinkling like a celestial glitter ball.

Rural Gay said...

Hi Ron,
Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment.

Seems there will always be a diva that gays look to for inspiration, be it Judy or Donna or Madonna or Lady Gaga. This morning, I've connected to Florence and the Machine's "Shake it Out" and TLC's "Unpretty". For whatever reason, the female voice has always been more potent in conveying both vulnerability and joy.