Is It Possible To Become A Gay Icon?

Elizabeth Taylor was a beloved gay icon. Which means there's room for one more

  • Illustration by Jason Schneider for TIME

    Irish wakes are good, sitting Shivah is O.K., jazz funerals are great, and ayatullah processions have their moments, but the people you really want to show up when you die are the gays. The Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood, is still mourning Elizabeth Taylor, who hung out there with her dog Daisy, drinking watermelon-and-apple martinis. Taylor was a gay-male icon: beautiful and talented with a messy personal life, addictions to drugs or alcohol, and about 14 marriages. I don't know the details because I'm straight.

    In fact, gay icons totally confuse me. I get that Maria Callas and Judy Garland are hot, talented women martyred by their art. But Marilyn Monroe was fabulous and tragic, and gays don't care about her except as a Halloween costume. And I've yet to hear of one drag queen who puns off of Vincent van Gogh. Meanwhile, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Cher seem to have fine lives. Is inner strength the key? Or vulnerability? And how can you possibly iconicize all four Golden Girls? They're so different.

    But all of them have a much better deal than having straight-dude fans. The moment you stop playing your sport, they ignore you and your sad suburban autograph signings. But if you're a gay icon and get addicted to meth, stop working and abuse your assistant, your fans just love you more for it. I needed to figure out how to become a gay icon. Even if it required drinking watermelon-and-apple martinis.

    My first problem, I was surprised to learn, was that having a penis is un- appealing to gay men's iconography. Dan Savage, sex columnist and creator of the It Gets Better project, told me that gay icons are almost always beautiful women. This, he said, is "so we can think of all the dudes we could get if we were you. But then you have to have a tragic love life, because it used to be tragic love lives were the only ones we could have." It's like the way straight dudes like great athletes but really adore athletes who screw up their lives with their self-destructive tendencies. In other words, if we were decent people who didn't fear our wives, we would be rallying around Tiger Woods.

    Dan believes that Barbra, Bette and Cher are lesser icons, loved merely for their talent and campiness. Which was not a smart thing to say to my friend Lash Fary, who runs a celebrity-gift-lounge business and has photos of Barbra Streisand lining his hallway and a framed lock of her hair that he got from a friend who goes to her stylist. Lash thinks Barbra's pursuit of excellence makes her an icon, though I'm going to guess, because my mom loves Barbra, that it has more to do with expressing emotions unnecessarily. He also thinks community service is key. "What Elizabeth Taylor lacked in talent, she made up in her crusading for AIDS research well before anyone was really doing it," Lash said. "That overpowers the fact that she was fat in a wheelchair later in life." It seemed as if being a gay icon might not come with the unadulterated respect I'd been hoping for.

    Still, you do get a lot of attention, so for specific advice I called the only gay icon I know. "I'm not going to lie, because the gays have been through too much adversity to sugarcoat anything," Kathy Griffin told me. "You're just not hot enough. You're 40 pounds overweight in gay pounds. Unless you turn into Taylor Lautner real fast, you'd better stick to light paperwork at the local GLAAD office."

    But plastic surgery and a juice fast wouldn't get me past the straight-guy hurdle. Dan said the only male gay icons he could think of were Oscar Wilde, James Dean, Rudolf Nureyev and "that dude who shot himself in the '80s," which made it sound like the canon didn't run that deep. But if I really worked hard, he thought I had a chance. "You are young and pretty," he said, proving himself a much more perceptive gay-icon spotter than Kathy Griffin. Apparently all I needed to do was die that way and leave behind the shocking secret of an affair with a young, beautiful boy who wronged me, leading me to self-destruction. "Good luck with the cigarette burns on your arm, bisexual affairs, drug addiction and early death," he said. "You've got a lot on your plate the next two years." I don't know what Dan tells kids who ask him sex questions, but I was starting to question the wisdom of his advice.

    Maybe becoming an icon would take too much energy. A long-discriminated-against group requires an icon who, like Kathy, is fearlessly authentic — dignity and humility be damned. When Elizabeth Taylor found out that a movie about her marriage to Richard Burton was in the works last July, she tweeted, "No one is going to play Elizabeth Taylor but Elizabeth Taylor herself." I don't have that kind of swagger. In fact, I'd love to have Taylor Lautner play me. And maybe break my heart.

    This article originally appeared in the April 11, 2011 issue of TIME.