“I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for the gay community.”
“We cannot use the name of God or religion to justify acts of violence — to hurt, to hate.”
“The gay community and gay people here and all around the world have the same rights — to be treated with dignity, with respect, with tolerance, with compassion, with love.”
These quotes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Madonna — who turns 65 on Wednesday, August 16th — and her tireless support for the LGBTQ community. Check the receipts — they’re detailed and long.
Sixty-five is certainly a milestone birthday, yet for iconic male entertainers, it usually warrants no more than a quick mention or passing glance. Not so for the Queen of Pop, of course.
She alluded to this with her signature bite when she was honored as Woman of the Year by Billboard in 2016. If you’re a woman, she said, “do not age, because to age is a sin… you will be criticized and vilified, and definitely not played on the radio.”
She was right to call out the double standard. Madonna, of course, is a woman who has always defied convention. Why should she be any different now? Ageing “gracefully” is not for this birthday girl — and thank goodness for that!
For her to dare to still be sexual, embodied, audacious, and hungry this long into her legendary career is a gift to all of us in the LGBTQ community.
Although my friend Matthew Rettenmund wrote an eloquent piece earlier this year highlighting Madonna’s continued relevance, I’d like to place my own bouquet next to his because this birthday is one to celebrate — a time to be grateful we still have this indelible icon here not just to entertain us, but to inspire our community and connect precious threads of our history.
There were strong women in music before Madonna — Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry certainly come to mind. But Madonna redefined what that meant entirely and made it arena-sized. Taylor Swift and Beyonce owe some part of their unprecedented touring success — their ability to perform on a mass scale with total liberation, empowered sexuality, and artistic freedom — to Madonna paving the way.
To use the cliché, she walked so they could run.
Younger gays may not realize just how profound an impact Madonna has had, not just on the wider culture but on their culture, and her birthday is a perfect time for them to learn.
I pose that all in the LGBTQ community (and plenty more) at the very least owe her respect for the ground she has broken, the sheer amount of pop hits she has delivered, and — of course — her allyship.
I attended the Rebel Heart Tour at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in 2015 and distinctly remember a group of women pumping their fists, singing along, and dancing excitedly in their seats to just about every song Madonna performed. More than that, I remember a man among them — obviously a boyfriend or husband — sitting there with a scowl on his face, arms folded, flat-out refusing to even give polite applause to an icon giving 110 percent.
This underscores why we still need Madonna and should lift her up in the face of criticism she will endure as long as she continues to forge on — and she will forge on because that’s what she does best.
It also highlights what a singular figure she is. Madonna has never compromised or allowed herself to be boxed in, facing criticism unbowed. She has never diluted or softened her power to make (straight) men feel more comfortable — and feel uncomfortable they do!
For anyone in the LGBTQ community who has struggled because of their identity or ever felt somehow disenfranchised or excluded, those folded arms are a familiar sight that say, “you are less than” and “you are not welcome.”
So much that Madonna has done in her career, right from the beginning, has told us the exact opposite — that we are seen, that we matter, and that we are welcome at her table.
She has championed us and had our backs long before it was trendy or the concept of being an “ally” existed. In the frightening time of the AIDS crisis she stood by us without judgment when others ran away in fear. Copies of her Like a Prayer album contained an insert with facts about how AIDS is transmitted and how to practice safe sex. This was quite some time before we had the Internet to turn to for solace and connection. So many of her young gay fans were scared, and her allyship was a life preserver.
She was the biggest female pop star in the world and didn’t have to do any of that hard work, but she did because she never forgot who was there for her at the very beginning — us.
It’s not difficult to see why the term “Mother” began to be extended beyond ballroom culture to female pop stars who are allies to the LGBTQ community. Just think of how many LGBT kids were afraid to or flat out knew they couldn’t turn to their parents for advice or comfort when the specter of AIDS loomed.
They may not have had their parents, but they had Madonna.
Generations of our community understand what it means to be persecuted for owning our sexuality unapologetically and refusing to be relegated to the shadows. It cannot be underestimated how much of a kinship we have built with Madonna because of that, too. When she was roundly criticized during the era of Erotica and the Sex book for daring to be forthright about her sexual appetites and desires, we could relate — the same voices trying to silence her, to stop her from going where no public woman had dared go before, were those that called us dirty or vulgar simply for being ourselves.
Our loyalty kept Madonna on the charts despite the backlash and bad press.
To see where it all began, you can find the performance of her 1982 debut single “Everybody” at Danceteria nightclub on YouTube. A gay man’s voice cuts through the audience before she starts to cheer her on. Her vocals are strained, her moves are a little awkward, and the song is certainly no “Ray of Light,” yet it’s impossible not to be compelled by her sheer charisma. The unapologetic grit and determination that make a star are in full evidence.
To this day, she makes music with our community in mind — check out the underrated 2019 pride anthem “I Rise” for proof. Much has changed in the intervening decades, but not the mutual loyalty she shares with us.
A straight female friend of mine is a longtime fan who has grown disenchanted with Madonna for the recent late-night talk show antics, the crazy outfits and accoutrement, the plastic surgery woes. I understand her when she laments the loss of the Madonna of her youth. She feels let down in some ways by a hero she wishes would have led the charge as an example of women aging naturally.
However, having grown up with Madonna, she may be too close to the source to be objective. There was just no way Madonna was going to accept the slow march of time upon her face and allow wrinkles, whether they be figurative or literal. She has never been one to go gently into that good night — and that’s a huge part of why we love her and can identify with her.
I recall Jane Fonda commenting on her own plastic surgery: “I don’t have the courage to have a lived-in face.”
I’d suggest there are (at least) two types of gay men — those who can accept the poignancy of Madonna’s stumbles as she ages, and those who feel uncomfortable with how much they relate to them. It’s so much easier to project and make fun than to face one’s own fading youth, especially when you’ve had so much Botox you can’t smile anymore. (Yes, I’m looking at you!)
To laugh and turn your back on Madonna may be the same as doing it to yourself.
As Elaine Stritch said, “I’m getting older every single day, and so is everybody else… we’re all going together, and why not enjoy it? There’s not a [expletive] thing you can do about it.”
Madonna has much in common with Joan Crawford, another oft-misunderstood gay icon. They both came from nothing yet saw their names up in lights due to sheer force of will and self-belief. Neither of them possessed a great deal of raw talent, but they wanted so much to reach the top that they worked hard to make themselves great. Both were nurtured by gay men who supported their burgeoning talent and remained loyal to these men.
Also, like Crawford before her, Madonna is growing harder, fiercer, and steelier with the passage of time. We have our cuddly icons — Kylie Minogue and Celine Dion come to mind — but Madonna is the opposite of that. This is why I think of her not so much as the Queen of Pop but as the Warrior of Pop. She fights till the bitter end and takes no prisoners, determined to win or die trying.
Many in the LGBT community can relate — until the day we achieve full equality and don’t have enemies trying to take away our rights, we will always need to be braced for battle, too. Madonna’s example has long been a contact high and source of inspiration.
“Let It Will Be” may hammer home this warrior-like quality better than any other Madonna song. In a rare moment of self-reckoning, she sings directly to her audience that her time in the spotlight will be short, that fame is a fickle beast, that everyone out there will one day turn on or forget her, and that she’s come too far to turn back now. She makes it clear she will not waste a moment of life, she will bask in the glory of the spotlight until it fades, she will never bow down, and she will never stop until that moment she goes down in flames. And even then, she invites you to watch. She craves your gaze even as she burns.
The performance of this song on the Confessions Tour DVD is showstopping in its power and needs to be seen to be believed. For many of my generation who were fortunate enough to see that tour live, it served as our unofficial welcome to the LGBTQ community — just as Blonde Ambition did for many who came before us a generation or two earlier.
It’s true that Michael Jackson, George Michael, Whitney Houston, and Prince all had more raw musical talent than Madonna as they rivaled her on the charts.
It’s also true that she is the only one left.
Implicit in her art has been a promise to survive, and it’s one she has kept, bittersweet truth notwithstanding.
I’m reminded of this hard-won wisdom from “I Don’t Search I Find”:
“We live between life and death, waiting to move on/And in the end, we accept it/We shake hands with our fate, and we walk past/There’s no rest for us in this world…”
It happens to be her 50th number-one single on the Billboard dance charts — but then who’s counting?
Madonna said, “the most controversial thing I’ve ever done is to stick around.” It’s true — when an artist dies, their record sales (or streams) soar. The public loves them again overnight.
I don’t remember nearly enough love and support for Michael or Whitney in the time before they died — and they really could have used it.
The good news is we can still give Madonna that love and support, that she is here to receive it.
It’s no secret that Madonna suffered quite a health scare recently. Luckily — and unsurprisingly — she is primed and poised to bounce back. Her postponed Celebration Tour promises to be a well-deserved victory lap for this most singular of pop stars when it kicks off at last.
She could just as credibly call this the I’m Still Alive, So STFU B*tches Tour, but she seems to be at a stage of her life where she’d rather focus on positivity, not the naysayers. She has learned better than anyone that they will always be there.
Whether you’re in the audience cheering or simply sending her your goodwill, remember what Madonna has accomplished — and what she has done for all of us.
Happy Birthday, Madonna.