What Defines A Queer Icon Today?
To be queer is to be an underdog. To be queer is to be an outsider at perpetual odds with the world and its normativity, binaries, and boxes. To be queer is to seek out comfort and validation from observing, admiring, and empathizing with individual stories of personal triumph from fiercely confident, well-known personalities because they're a reminder that life gets better. To be queer is to hold those histories in high regard, idolizing them and making sure they never go untold. To be queer is to celebrate the underdog who became top dog but never lost touch with that original feeling.
Historically, bona fide LGBTQIA icons have faced public adversity and displayed extraordinary resilience under scrutiny. Judy Garland, who was once considered to be an "ugly duckling," fought her way to legendary status, wearing her insecurities on her sleeves and becoming a beacon of hope for queer adversity. Grace Jones, too, in all her outspoken punk bravado, persists because her unwavering sense of self and how she expresses it normalizes the weird. Queer icons, then, are revolutionaries, bold and magnetic.
Elliott H. Powell, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, puts it plainly: Queer icons are "those who consistently and publicly transgress boundaries and who push back against racial, gender, and sexual norms." Their refusal of the status quo makes queer icons "teachers and guides of nonnormativity; they help us navigate the oppressions of the present, and they help us imagine another world of possibility."
The question of who gets such a title, however, is not so easily answered. Noah Michelson, the editorial director of HuffPost's Voices and the executive editor of HuffPost's Queer Voices, says such an answer is subjective. Of course, there are the obvious queer icons, like Madonna, Cher, RuPaul, Ellen—hell, even Oscar Wilde—folks whose careers and public life are very much indebted to the queer community, whether it be through allyship and/or living their truth with pride. They're trailblazers and have something to say. "It’s hard these days to be a queer icon," Michelson says, because the moment you attribute that title to someone, the easier it becomes to list off all the reasons why they might not be worthy of it. Are they advocates? Do they have to be, or can their living by sheer example be enough?
"The function they serve is a sort of embodiment of the values of the moment, whether that means speaking truth to power, or whether that means succeeding in business, or whether that means just being really good-looking," Riese, the founder, editor-in-chief, and CEO of Autostraddle, says. "Historically," she adds, "queer women have always gravitated towards women who feel like they’re in charge of their shit; they don’t care what men think about them, and they’re doing it for themselves." One doesn't have to necessarily identify as queer to be considered a queer icon, either. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton both exist in a special echelon of queer icons for their perseverance and humility. Britney Spears, who identifies as a cisgender heterosexual woman, is a pillar of strength and tenacity, who also happens to put out music that most frequently fills the clubs, bars, house party playlists, and other LGBTQIA spaces.
Right now, with the gender revolution in full swing, Powell considers Laverne Cox to be a prime example of a modern-day queer icon. "I love a lot of things about Laverne Cox, but one is how she uses her platform to address pressing political issues," he explains. "Whether it's being the executive producer of the CeCe McDonald documentary to address policing and mass incarceration of trans women of color, or using the Grammys to bring awareness to Gavin Grimm, Laverne Cox illustrates how to use media platforms to speak to everyday material realities." Cox also, he adds, keeps the light shining on the historical figures whose journeys helped her get to where she is today, people like "Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Lady Chablis, Diahann Carroll, Janet Jackson, Rihanna, and, of course, Beyoncé."
This is a major point in being a queer icon: not erasing the past, but rather, honoring it, celebrating it, and working to keep the names of queer forebears alive. Powell cites the "Snatch Game" on RuPaul's Drag Race, a segment where the drag queens must dress up as and impersonate iconic personalities, to be a great lesson in queer history, "[highlighting] queer icons that are often overlooked within a U.S.-based and/or white frame."
Queer icons, really, are sources of comfort and inspiration. Historically, queer men have elevated fierce female personalities because, as Michelson says, "queer male sexuality has long been tied to female sexuality due to both sexualities having been so demonized and policed." Queer icons are those who have triumphed when almost everything was working against them. They can be anyone or, well, anything as referenced by the now revered queer icon, Babadook. "I do think that they’re all worthy in a certain way if they make you feel liberated or if they make you feel empowered," Michelson says.
Queer icons provide an escape that is necessary to achieving personal peace and boosting self-confidence. How many What Would Beyoncé Do? desk tchotchkes have you seen? Queer icons are emulations. Can one be a queer icon and not be an LGBTQIA advocate today? Yes, because anyone can be a queer icon if they help someone love themselves, but allyship and speaking truth to power are vital to the queer rights movement. It would be amazing if all queer icons were outspoken politically and socially, but, as Michelson says, an individual doesn't need to "tick every box" to be seen in such high regard. Riese, however, sees things a little differently, saying there "definitely has been a push towards queer icons actually being queer." With Beyoncé as the example, she says "the fact that she only hires women to work on her tours, and her whole backup band is women, and she is pretty outspoken when it comes to feminist issues and race issues make her a queer icon."
It's those that take a stand and use their platform to elevate and support the voices of marginalized people that become queer icons. They remind us where we've been so we can work for a better, more inclusive tomorrow. Queer icons, then, are unapologetically home, a dream home, maybe, but still home.