Our icons provide much more than mere entertainment

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Rainbow flag with musical notes

“Any medium that allows us to fantasize that we are someone else, to express the inexpressible, to triumph over ‘normality’ or simply that offers us an experience powerful enough to soothe our feelings, is likely to be popular with those of us who are traumatized — sometimes overwhelmingly so.” Matthew Todd, Straight Jacket 

I recently thought about why so many in the LGBTQ community particularly gay men love our female music icons so much. 

It started with a straight man telling me he felt depressed after his favorite football team faced a huge setback early in the NFL season. He asked if it sounded silly for him to have such a strong emotional reaction after all, he’s not on the payroll, just a fan. 

It doesn’t. The memories he has made with the team have become precious and loaded with special meaning. How could he not become loyal and invested? It proves he’s alive and passionate. 

I reminded him that the moments in the trenches make the victories that much sweeter. 

This applies so often as well to gay men and how we experience the stumbles and successes of the pop stars we love. 

(And if you’re a gay man who loves sports or doesn’t enjoy pop music please resist writing in to enlighten me I’ve met many such men and dated a few!) 

The football conversation made me think of Kylie Minogue in my eyes, the quintessential pop star and the only Kylie who matters because her last year has emphatically not been one in the trenches.  

TikTok algorithms and savvy promotion propelled “Padam Padam” to become her biggest hit single in well over a decade after its release on the precipice of Pride month last May. The music video has quickly become iconic for its color scheme, glacial aesthetic, and robotic choreography. She now enjoys a broadened fan base of a lower average age than it was this time last year. 

For context, she is a bit older than Cher was when “Believe” came out in 1998. Kylie is nearly 40 years into a career critics boasted would not last beyond six months. Now she defied the odds by bucking ageism in a big way without a bead of sweat on her brow, stirring our gay hearts into a frenzy. “Padam Padam” indeed. 

Cher is standing on a ice burg and wearing a silver long dress and with a blonde wig.
Cher photo by An Le

I’m deeply proud to be on Team Kylie. The older (American) gays who said “Well, she’s no Diana Ross” and the younger ones who said “Who?” have stopped and listened they’re paying attention and showing a measure of respect. Some of them can now see her spinal column of savvy, staying power, and uncommon strength. 

How could it not be meaningful for me as a fan of two decades? I’ve known my best friends for about half that time compared to Kylie, I don’t know if I trust them yet.  

The only other time I felt so vindicated was when Mariah scored her massive 2005 comeback. So many of the kids I grew up with made fun of me for being a fan. That laughter stopped when she began selling albums again by the truckload. They called it the Return of the Voice and what a return! 

I remember a woman seeing me hold a copy of an album in January 2005 and saying “Mariah?! She done!” I smiled at her and said, “You wait and see.” I wonder if she remembered me when “We Belong Together” became the biggest hit single of the entire 2000s decade. 

Mariah Carey photo courtesy of E!
Mariah Carey photo courtesy of E!

But why do these songstresses matter so much to us? It’s clearly much more complicated than just a love of music, visuals or style. 

I once read about a gay man dying of AIDS in 1986. He was withering away and expressionless, yet his friend knew what to do he rushed out to the store and bought a copy of Madonna’s True Blue album, which had just come out. He knew his ailing friend would want to hold it in his hands, read the lyrics, and savor the artwork. 

He returned to the hospital with the LP and got what he hoped for to see his friend smile one more time. 

Let’s not forget Madonna was just a few years into her career then. Imagine what she means to the gay men who were on her team then and survived as she has to remain there today. They’re not only still here but integral to her enduring success. Naysayers be damned, she’s playing three nights at Madison Square Garden this month as part of her Celebration Tour.

Sold out! 

“Nearly all LGBTQ people have become accustomed to this the invalidation, the condemnation, the dirty stares.”

Our society remains deeply misogynistic and homophobic. This sheds light on the kinship gay men share with strong, talented women. The patriarchy doesn’t expect them to prevail and endure, but when they do, it reminds us that we can, too. When they don’t (I’m thinking of Whitney Houston and, of course, Judy Garland, the greatest gay icon of them all) we can relate to how hard they fought to survive because we have also had to do it we haven’t had any choice but to give it our level best despite odds often stacked against us, with so many taunts and jeers.  

If you spend time in Provincetown, you probably find it a home away from home, as I do. In late November my heart sank when I heard a fundamentalist Christian group would protest outside P Town performance spaces and use prayer as a disingenuous means to harass drag performers many of whom I deeply care about and their audiences. 

It hurt even more to realize they were planning their protest praying a rosary outside a prominent venue, the Post Office Café and Cabaret for Dec. 1, which is World AIDS Day. What a punch in the face. 

Nearly all LGBTQ people have become accustomed to this the invalidation, the condemnation, the dirty stares. They are effectively a cancer upon us. Even if we can rise above them and we can and have their effect remains, lingering in our collective nervous system. 

It’s no surprise that so many LGBTQ people have died before their time. Being spiritually depleted takes a mental and physical toll. 

This is why we must be there for each other and form a human chain in times of adversity. It’s also why the outstretched hands of our icons represent an allyship we value so much that no amount of money could reflect its worth. We stick by them like family because, really, they are. 

Cher is standing and wearing light jeans and a white low cut top with her long black hair hanging over the front of the shirt.
Cher photo by An Le

On the eve of the protest, I thought of my friends up in P Town and felt fatigued just at the thought of what they’d face. 

Minutes later, Cher’s latest single “DJ Play a Christmas Song” wafted through my car speakers and wrapped me up in velvety bright red and green. The number one living gay icon was there at just the right moment to provide a measure of comfort and remind me everything would somehow be all right. 

And it was. Apparently, protestors learned just how far they’d have to travel and decided not to make the effort, although the strength of the P Town community surely played a part. The precautions taken by local law enforcement and people coming together to sing for the AIDS memorial would have dampened their impact and highlighted their hypocrisy. Furthermore, the publicity only served to increase ticket sales and bolster moral support from our allies in the surrounding communities. 

Yet the fact that the specter of the protest faded away quickly says a lot we are so used to being harassed that it barely even registers. It’s an accepted part of being LGBTQ.  

On Dec. 26, Cher made the record books yet again when she reached the pop charts for the first time in over 20 years, with her name bulleted next to acts several generations younger. The first time she charted was in 1965, nearly 60 years ago. She remains the pinnacle of longevity and defies the odds. 

I thought of all the gay men we’ve lost so many before their time who would have had tears in their eyes knowing Cher would last long enough to dent the pop charts in 2023. (They also would have loved to know she’s dating a hot younger man!) 

Let’s celebrate this latest Cher moment on their behalf, shall we? It’s our privilege to do so. 

I remember back when I became a Kylie fan hearing another gay man say she’d accomplished as much as Cher had “in half the time.” I didn’t agree with the statement, but I see why he made it. By now, she’s scored 52 Top 40 singles in the UK spanning five decades. What a dressing down of those who said she’d last 15 minutes! There are definite similarities between these two ladies and there’s rich satisfaction in seeing an underdog prevail. 

Critics and commentators called Kylie’s first albums disposable fluff in reaction to what was perceived as overnight success. The British press was savage and hit below the belt. Gay men long before my generation of fans formed a hedge of protection around Kylie and forged deep loyalty. Like Dolly Parton before her, she was surprised and delighted to discover drag nights at gay bars dedicated entirely to her. She began performing at Pride events long before most pop stars acknowledged their gay audience. 

The author with Kylie Minogue in 2022
The author with Kylie Minogue in 2022

Kylie remains remarkably unjaded and openhearted. It’s eminently touching and makes her stand out from the pack. She bulldozes through cynicism and reminds us that the good guy can win, that it’s possible to stand strong in the face of headwinds without losing oneself and becoming hardened or bitter. She has not lost her sense of fun nor an ounce of her femininity through decades in a brutal industry. 

Like the best of our icons, she reminds us that femininity is not lesser than masculinity it can be just as strong. They go hand in hand. 

In May 2005, she was over 30 shows into a splashy greatest hits tour when she found a lump on her breast. Just like that, everything in her world came to a stop. 

She not only battled her way back from cancer but returned to the stage in Nov. 2006, resuming the tour right where it left off. The first night back she gingerly smiled, thanking the audience for their patience: 

“This is officially fashionably late a year and a half. But I mean FASHIONABLY!” 

She didn’t cry she let us do that.  

It’s easy to use Kylie to demonstrate the point of this article because she’s the only LGBTQ icon I grew up with still interested in being a full-time pop star. In an era where the rest are rehashing past glories, facing writer’s block, too fatigued to continue or simply trying to burn as few calories as possible while making the most money, her hunger and sparkle remain. 

At five foot nothing she is legitimately the Tinker Bell and the Rocky Balboa of pop. 

I picked more than a winning team I have a touchstone to remind me some beautiful things don’t have to lose their luster or become corrupted by time. 

“Female friends stood to the side like they were infringing upon our sacred space until we welcomed them closer.”

This was in full evidence on Sept. 23 when I went to Club Cumming (owned be our dear Alan Cumming) to celebrate the release of the Tension album. Bright Light Bright Light and Thomas CW spun Kylie for over four hours and just scratched the surface of her catalog. They played B-sides and obscurities even I didn’t know and had to ask about. 

At first, the atmosphere felt prickly and tentative, but as more gay men trickled in  female friends stood to the side like they were infringing upon our sacred space until we welcomed them closer things quickly changed. 

It felt like it was a church service for the heart and soul, with Kylie as high priestess of our joys, wounds, and triumphs as gay men of every disposition, color, shape, and size came together as one. Many of us couldn’t dance, and at least for one night, it didn’t matter.  

Post-It notes full of song requests littered the corkboard. Early on, her 2014 cancer research charity single “Crystallize” blared through the speakers: 

“In the darkness, when it’s all a mess/And you’re swimming through a sea of broken promises/You can find me shining like a laser beam feel the light.” 

My friend Alex walked in and requested “Stars,” Kylie’s meditation on mortality in the wake of beating cancer. It shook the floor as the pace ratcheted up: 

“Kylie tells us more than once to feel the light, and why on earth not?”

“You never know what you find/Because stars don’t shine in singular places/Open up your mind’s eye and light up familiar faces/Because in time you’ll find life and all of its races/So open up your mind’s eye and go tonight/Begin to feel the light.” 

Yes, Kylie tells us more than once to feel the light, and why on earth not? We could all dearly use some. 

Alex texted a friend in the UK and told me they became acquainted 30 years ago when another fan, Jack, brought them together a kind of Three Musketeers of Kylie lovers. Then he told me Jack died of leukemia many years ago. 

I thought of how so many come and go from our lives some taken much too soon and how their reverberations are often felt long after they depart. We are so much more than our physical bodies.  

Then Alex told me something startling when Jack battled leukemia, Kylie somehow learned about it and wrote him with support and encouragement, relating to him through her own recent battle with a life-threatening illness. She only knew him as a fan but took the time to show that she cared, lifting his spirits in the darkest days.  

I took this in as Kylie’s latest single “Hold on to Now” enveloped the dance floor: 

“Some moments are magic, some are only tripping the line/And every word we’re hearing sounds like goodbye, but we’ve got the night…” 

Memories of so many I’ve cherished and lost several of them gay men who died of accumulated trauma that simply wore them out before their time washed over me like a wave of love and light. I felt seamlessly connected to everyone as we were cradled in Kylie’s embrace: 

“It was not only uplifting like invisible hands buoying us but a moment to be grateful for the opportunity to be there.”

“Baby, what are we holding on to/Baby, where do we wanna run to/Oh, we’ll figure it out somehow, keep holding on to now/Dreaming we’ll be dancing forever, floating on this feeling together…” 

I felt in my bones there were many more with us on that dance floor we could not see with the naked eye. It was not only uplifting like invisible hands buoying us but a moment to be grateful for the opportunity to be there to simply be, undiminished and unbowed with Kylie reminding us of how precious and ephemeral the moment was: 

“We’re all just going, going ‘round/So where we going, going now/The world could all be falling down/But we’ll be holding on to now…” 

Yes, many bars have World Series and Super Bowl theme nights, and that’s all well and good, but for this special evening, we had our own. 

The world does indeed keep going ‘round. Soon afterward I met a talented young drag queen, Lit’Ra Leigh, after seeing her lip-sync a Kylie single that’s as old as I am. It was an inspired choice I was amazed someone so young would know it. I was touched to chat with her and discover someone her age so sensitive, open, and curious. She recently discovered and fell in love with Kylie (again, it’s been a great year for our team!) and was diligently savoring her back catalog.  

I jumped when she mentioned the song “Sexual Gold” it’s unreleased, but you can find it. Then, when I showed her my picture with Kylie, it was her turn to jump. I was deeply touched Kylie is so kind and accessible I sometimes forget she’s an international icon. There was a time I’d have had the same reaction to someone showing me a picture they took with her. 

My best friend (a fellow Kylie diehard) and I will travel soon to see her complete this amazing chapter of her career in her sold-out Las Vegas residency yet another dream she doggedly pursued and saw through to glittering, fabulous fruition. Read the reviews they’re all raves. 

In a world full of chaos and things we can’t be sure of, we believe in Kylie. She will deliver. That we know. We wouldn’t travel to Vegas for just anyone. 

Is it a logical thing to do? Of course not. But we’re holding on to now…and this is our Super Bowl.