how to be a queer icon

From The Babadook to Madonna and RuPaul, the world of queer icons has no prescribed recipe. So what does it take?

by Nick Levine
11 July 2017, 4:32pm

This article was originally published by i-D UK. 

There's never been any kind of checklist or recipe for what makes a queer icon. A pop culture figure tends to be embraced by the LGBT community when he, she, or they displays a perfect storm of personal attributes over a sustained period of time. These include, but aren't necessarily limited to, camp, glamour, flamboyance, resilience, irony, and a sense of otherness. A sharp tongue will certainly help, an easily identifiable personal style is fairly fundamental, and a history of overcoming adversity has often been appreciated.

When most of us think about queer icons, it's possible you think of Cher, Madonna, or Liza Minnelli — largely females who have survived a turbulent personal life, but are unafraid to embrace the sequin razzle of showbiz. But does this mean that the queer icon status carries with it a whiff of misogyny?

As internet culture has developed, giving us all access to more content — more gifs, more memes, and more YouTube supercuts of so-called "diva moments" — it's become easier and quicker for all kinds of new icons to be established. Thanks partly to a Netflix error that saw a cult Australian horror film become wrongly listed in the LGBT section of the streaming platform, a fictional monster with a fondness for a top hat called the Babadook is this Pride season's funkiest queer icon. The Babadook is an outsider with a flair for the dramatic who, one could argue, is simply trying to live their best life. The character's queer iconic credentials are hardly a stretch, and when queer Twitter and Tumblr reach some kind of consensus now, it seems like a modern-day queer icon can be born. In fact, a Brazilian alligator character called Cuca has since been welcomed in a very tongue-in-cheek way as a kind of post-Babadook queer icon.

Laverne Cox, Troye Sivan, Ellen Page, Naomi Campbell, Chelsea Manning, and RuPaul's Drag Race champion Sasha Velour are all modern-day queer icons who don't quite fit the old-fashioned archetype.

Now, it's obviously worth pointing out that some of our current "social media queer icons," if you like, aren't going to endure. After last month's election night, Labour MP Emily Thornberry was hailed by one publication as a "queen of sass," and suddenly her decision to call herself a "gay icon" in a campaign interview didn't seem quite so ridiculous. Three weeks later, people are still posting that brilliant clip of her shutting down David Dimbleby with the classic line: "Well, there we are." Will the joke still be so funny in three months' time? Probably not, but these days, queer icon status can be pretty ephemeral.

Some corners of the LGBT community are bound to sneer and say something like, "Well, they're not proper gay icons like Madonna, anyway." But does this really matter? The high esteem in which Madonna is rightly held by many LGBT people isn't diminished because some of us want to dress as the Babadook for Pride this year. And there's an obvious natural benefit to our ability to welcome new queer icons so quickly and easily: the pool becomes much more diverse and much more inclusive. Laverne Cox, Troye Sivan, Ellen Page, Naomi Campbell, Chelsea Manning, and RuPaul's Drag Race champion Sasha Velour are all modern-day queer icons who don't quite fit the old-fashioned archetype. Martyn Hett, the hilarious content creator and self-styled "iconic diva" who was tragically killed in the Manchester terror attack, has undoubtedly become a queer icon in recent weeks. Whether you ever followed Hett on Twitter or not, it's been both heartwarming and supremely poignant to watch the #BeMoreMartyn hashtag being used to encourage people to live more vibrant and less self-conscious lives.

So what does this tell us? There's still no real route to being a gay icon. Taylor Swift is arguably the biggest pop star in the world, but she's not really there yet. Analyzing why is a potential minefield, but let's just say there's something about the personal narrative Swift portrays on social media and in her songs that doesn't feel very queer. On the flipside, Carly Rae Jepsen's last album failed to make the top 20 in the UK, but she's already having LGBT club nights dedicated to her. The queer icon may be evolving in 2017, but there's still no recipe or checklist. Some pop culture figures just seem worthy of an appreciative "Yasss, queen!" Others simply don't.

Read: While the term 'gay icon' may no longer have resonance to a generation of LGBTQ youth, these current and historical artists, activists, and advocates certainly do. Here's our gAy-Z of LGBTQ idols.


Text Nick Levine
Image via Twitter

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