Gay Icons

September 2009

The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favourite galleries in London, and, like Westminster Abbey, a handy way to take in hundreds of years of British history in one elegantly laid out tourist package. Starting with ponderously composed but amusingly revealing portraits of Elizabeth I, wryly smiling as she clutches a dagger or stands on a map of Europe, fast forwarding through the monumentalising portraits of the 19th century and then quantum leaping into 20th century photography, it’s a cultural history lesson, a survey of the changing nature of heroism and celebrity, and a really, really good excuse to get voyeuristic and stare at famous people for a long time.

For a gay or lesbian viewer, the NPG would seem at first glance be simply another memorial to the Dead White (Heterosexual) Men who’ve controlled history and culture, and yet another reminder that gays and lesbians are largely absent from the formal record of His-tory. (I know, I know – I couldn’t resist a late 90s academic thesis hyphenation of words for ironic effect). But for the observant viewer, once you’ve trawled through the endless galleries of bearded old men in Victorian mourning suits, the NPG is a surprisingly rich treasure house of gay and lesbian history, due largely to the numbers of famous writers, artists and musicians who were bent (or at least a bit pervy after hours).

Alas, the NPG, like most Establishment galleries, gets a bit closety and tight-lipped about identifying famous homos for being famous because they were homos, and most portraits don’t come with much of a queer context, leaving the viewer to queer the pitch themselves. That being said, one of my happiest moments in my seven years in London was spotting Kenneth Green’s portrait of composer Benjamin Britten and his long-term lover, the tenor Peter Pears.

You don’t need to know anything about Britten or Pears or even know that they were lovers to understand the portrait. The mere fact of two men being painted together gives a clue that they may have been more than just good friends. As you look closer, you notice the ease and intimacy of their body language in the way that Pears leans back into Britten, the attentive, affectionate look at that Britten gives Pears (though from some angles it does look as though he’s checking for dandruff), and the way in which their dress (and similar choice of tie colour) binds them together as a unit. If you know the full story of their relationship, then the joys of viewing the portrait are, of course, much deeper and more resonant, but there’s enough of their love in the portrait to translate to anyone. It’s probably my favourite portrait in the NPG, and one of my favourite depictions of a same-sex relationship in existence.

This year, the NPG decided to dust off their collection of sexual deviants, and let in some new kids on the block to keep company with some of the other old queens, and commissioned a remarkable exhibition, Gay Icons. The NPG invited ten well known homos, “each of whom is a prominent gay figure in contemporary culture and society”, to name six people “whom they personally regard as inspirational, or an icon for them”. The only limitation placed on the selectors was that the exhibition would be made up of photographic portraiture, so the subjects had to date from the last 150 years. So, no chance to select Richard Lionheart or Edward II (two of England’s well-known bumboy kings) or Ancient Greek poetess Sappho, but you could choose American psychopaths Leopold & Loeb or anyone who slept with Madonna in the mid-80s. (Didn’t everyone?)

The selectors were chaired by Radio 4 broadcaster and well-known carpet-muncher Sandi Toksvig, who presumably had the job of mixing the cocktails (or brewing the herbal tea for the lesbians), keeping order and making sure that everyone didn’t choose Geri Halliwell or the Queen Mother at the same time. Rounding out the Tasty Ten were politicians Lord Alli and Chris Smith, writers Alan Hollinghurst, Jackie Kay and Sarah Waters, activist Ben Summerskill, musician and diva Elton John, sportswoman Billie Jean King, and actor/activist Ian McKellen.

The selection process was, I thought, an ingenious form of curation, since it seemed to break so radically with the way in which public figures are usually selected as Significant enough to warrant a portrait in the NPG. Rather than automatically selecting people for achieving a publicly recognised standard or fulfilling a public role, the selection allowed for grassroots folk to be chosen – all the more important when dealing with gays and lesbians who’ve been largely under-represented in public life. Identifying as gay, particularly in the pre-liberation days, usually means standing outside of the Establishment and occupying (or being forced to occupy) a place of difference and exclusion, making it less likely that you’d end up with your name in the official history books. The selection process also gave the selectors a chance to say something particular about themselves and their influences. The concept of an “icon”, in this postmodern age, seems to be an increasingly personal one, particularly when your focus as a gay or lesbian person isn’t always on mainstream culture. All of us construct the world differently, and sometimes the most important people in our lives aren’t always the Great Names of history, but people who we know or who we’ve admired from a distance. The broadness of the definition meant that selectors could, theoretically, choose straight people as their icons, or “icons” who are otherwise unknown to the rest of the world. The selectors themselves, who represented a reasonably broad spectrum of professional, sexual and ethnic viewpoints, were guaranteed to produce a diverse selection of icons, and so the exhibition could claim to be representative, while excusing itself from most accusations of not being completely comprehensive.

That being said, most of the subjects steered a fairly predictable course, choosing gay and lesbian people who had distinguished themselves somehow in the heterosexual world and made a public acknowledgement of their sexuality before it was fashionable to be gay. The usual suspects were there – Jackie Kay chose stately homo Quentin Crisp, Ian McKellen chose politician Harvey Milk and poet Walt Whitman, and Ben Summerskill chose comedian Ellen DeGeneres and tennis star Martina Navratilova – all of them openly and unapologetically gay at an early point in their careers, and all of them (even Crisp) activists for the right to be glad to be gay.

Given the rather high incidence of Radio 4-friendly artistic types on the selectors panel, writers and artists featured rather highly – Lord Alli chose painter David Hockney, Alan Hollinghurst chose writers Ronald Firbank, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Edmund White and composer Tschaikovsky, Jackie Kay chose poet Audre Lorde and singer Bessie Smith, Elton John chose fashion designer Gianni Versace, Chris Smith chose Benjamin Britten and writers W. H. Auden and Virginia Woolf, and Ben Summerskill chose writers Joe Orton and Maya Angelou. Sarah Waters seemed the most steeped in books of all the selectors, choosing well-established lesbian writers Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith, slightly less well known lesbian writer Syliva Townsend Warner, the notably obscure lesbian and gay writers Bryher and Denton Walsh, and then comedian Kenneth Williams thrown in at the end for fun.

For a literary gay like me, this makes a kind of sense, since many gay and lesbian people of a certain generation discovered their sexuality on their own, largely without the support or company of other gay people, and only discovered the existence of other gay people by reading books or filching juicy biographical details about the lives of artists. But the downside of all this literary luvviedom was that it limited many of the choices to long-dead figures who you probably wouldn’t know about unless you’d spent most of your teens in a library or studied English at university. The bookishness of the selectors and their preference for historical icons meant that very few contemporaries or people from the world of popular culture made the cut. Sarah Waters’ choices, particularly, seemed to reflect a life spent thumbing through dirty books in the less-well-visited areas of the library, and showed little engagement with the world at all beyond the mid-1960s.

The notable exception was Lord Alli, who chose drag performer Lily Savage, pop band the Village People, dead royal Diana the Princess of Wales, pop tart Will Young and porn star Jeff Stryker. Of all the selectors, Alli seemed the most attuned to some of the less lofty aspects of gay culture – the choice of Stryker reflected the influence of porn in the development of gay culture, Princess Di arguably did more for public understanding of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s than politicians or activists ever did, and Will Young, fatuous and flash-in-the-pan though his celebrity status might be, was the best example in the exhibition of someone who recently attained icon status to a younger audience. Young was, in fact, the only subject who was living and well under the age of menopause. One of the major criticisms of the exhibition, made by Paul Burston writing in Time Out, was that the subjects were mostly removed from the realities of contemporary pop culture and assumed that “icon” had to equate death or old age. (Burston didn’t put the point that eloquently, of course – I’m paraphrasing to make his criticism sound more intelligent).

To their credits, some of the other selectors managed to draw from popular culture too: Ben Summerskill selected Ian Roberts, the first openly gay rugby player to come out, and Alan Hollinghurst selected the moody beauty of Joe Dallesandro, the beautiful actor/hustler of Andy Warhol’s experimental film Blow Job, whose face was chosen as one of the posters for the exhibition. And Sandi Toksvig, while not quite hangin’ with the kids, tried to honour the living rather than the dead by choosing the very much alive singer k.d. lang, gay cleric Gene Robinson and activist Peter Tatchell as her icons.

One or two choices were much, much more personal, and shone a light on the way in which the people closest to us rather than in the public eye are the most important. Billie Jean King rather touchingly named her father, mother and brother collectively as one of her icons, illustrated with a family photo from what looks like the mid-70s. Some of the reviewers questioned this entry – can someone really be an “icon” even if they haven’t contributed to the world at large? – but I cheered Billie Jean heartily for her choice. Our parents are, inevitably, the most important and influential people in our lives, and for many gay and lesbian people, open acknowledgement of their sexuality results in estrangement from their families. For Billie Jean to include her parents was, I thought, a touching monument to a family who have (I assume) supported her as an openly lesbian woman, which is something many gay people still struggle to achieve with their own families.

Otherwise, Billie Jean’s choices seemed to stray a bit from the task in hand. The journalist Christiane Amanpour is, no doubt, a great role model for successful professional women, and the three sports stars she named – Althea Gibson, Ilana Kloss and Bob Richards – were presumably also great influences for her development as a great tennis player. But none of the four can really qualify as “gay icons” – they are, instead, icons for one gay person, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Similarly strange and self-absorbed were Elton John’s choices. None of his selections her gay, and they ranged from ragtime singer Winifred Atwell, his writing partner Bernie Taupin, fellow musician John Lennon, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and English football manager Graham Taylor. Again, these people have clearly all been inspiring and influential to Elton, and at least 3 of them are musical icons, but none of them have much resonance for gay people generally. The effect of choosing people who aren’t in the public sphere is that the choices only serve to reflect back onto the selector themselves, which seems a bit like an ego trip. Then again, this is Elton John we’re talking about, so it’s unsurprising that he focused on the “me” part of “icon for me”.

Otherwise, it was a wonderful, enlightening exhibition that shone a light on many of the lesser-known lights of gay and lesbian existence. I was delighted that Ian McKellen chose Edward Carpenter, one of the pioneering social reformers of Victorian England, whose rough trade boyfriend once groped E.M. Forster’s arse, inspiring him to write the novel Maurice. Like the trouper he is, McKellen also chose Margarethe Cammermeyer, the American colonel who got kicked out of the army in the 1980s for being a dyke. Likewise, a wolf whistle for Chris Smith for choosing Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who was chemically castrated in the 1950s after his homosexuality was discovered, and to Ben Summerskill for choosing painter Francis Bacon, a man who revealed in his life and art a distinctly dark and self-destructive version of gay sexuality.

So who was missing? Well, given the age and relative Anglophilia of the selectors, there wasn’t a great deal of representation from any icons from the mid-1970s onwards. Filmmaker, writer and activist Derek Jarman was criminally missing, as – strangely – was Oscar Wilde, the gayest gay man of them all. Perhaps the selectors didn’t want to reach for the too-obvious or the cliched and so ignored Wilde, but his absence was a bit like talking about the history of art without mentioning Picasso. Speaking of artists, where was Andy Warhol? I was also rather surprised not to see David Bowie, who inspired millions of girly boys in the 1970s to get in touch with their inner androgynes. Everyone seems to have been a bit too embarrassed to dip into their vinyl collections and pull out some of the great torch song divas of the post war era. Judy Garland, in particular, seems to jump out as someone whose life and art was inextricably linked with gay sensibility and gay liberation. Her death coincided with the Stonewall riots in New York in 1968, which gave birth to the American gay rights movement. She also had the enormous grace to die while sitting on the toilet in a rented flat in London, which surely qualifies her for honourable mention at a NPG exhibition.

And yes, in reluctant agreement with Paul Burston and his kind, I also wanted to see Madonna. Not because I’m her greatest fan, of course (particularly not in her latest, dull Kabbalah evangelist/Let’s Adopt Africa mode), but in recognition of her flashing her tits across magazine covers for 20 years, for bowdlerising lipstick lesbianism and S&M sex for marketing purposes, and for demonstrating how to give a blow job with a Coke bottle in her wonderfully narcissistic documentary In Bed With Madonna. Surely that deserved a mention over Chris Smith’s bafflingly obscure choice of John Menlove Edwards, “the father of modern rock climbing”.

All of this pondering over the relative merits of Madge’s minge over Nelson Mandela (one of Billie Jean King’s few non-sporty choices) lead me to ponder whether “icon” means something quite different for people of the selectors’ (roughly all) baby boomer generation than it does for the rubber-soled shoe wearing cool kids who grew up in the 80s and whose cultural references don’t pre-date Britney Spears. The exhibition had little, if anything, that spoke to young gay and lesbian people about their own times. If nothing else, the NPG missed a major opportunity to make the exhibition more relevant to young people, although I’m sure some young people may have found the history lesson interesting.

Then again, is bowing to the affectations of youth really the best way to go either? “gay icon” is now a term rolled out in gay nightclub marketing promos to describe the career reinvention of tired disco divas, and gets applied so indiscriminately that it means very little. I have yet to understand how Kylie Minogue qualifies as a “gay icon”, other than being a bit camp and singing cheesy pop songs that gay men like to dance to at dance parties. If this is all that it takes to be a gay icon these days, then maybe we do need Sandi, Ian and Co setting some minimum quality standards for the rest of us.

But quibbles are inevitable, and shouldn’t distract from the monumental power of this exhibition, which stands as a minor miracle in itself, and as a great testament to some extraordinary gay and lesbian lives. As I walked around the exhibition, I felt the pleasure and pride of seeing familiar names, and appreciated being able to discover or be reminded of less well-known lives. For me, and most of the other gallery goers that day, there was a cosy familiarity, like going to a school reunion, and a quiet but solid sense of gay and lesbian community. Here they were, the world’s freaks and outcasts and perverts, gathered together in an exhibition celebrating their contribution to our understanding of ourselves, and here we were, more freaks and perverts moving among the normal people and seeing ourselves reflected and monumentalised.

My friend Chris told me, movingly, that he cried as he walked around the exhibition, realising that “this was my community”. I didn’t cry, but I felt incredibly moved, and relieved that gay culture had achieved this level of legitimacy, while not yet forgetting about the differences that make gay icons distinctive from (as Jarman put it) HeteroSoc. Walking through the exhibition made me feel as proud of being gay as I’ve ever felt before. Here, definitely, was proof that we are no longer alone, that the devastating silence and isolation of the past was gone, and that we are (almost) everywhere. There’s safety in numbers, you know.

(Postscript: The Gay Icons exhibition is finished, but or those who are interested, the NPG website still features information on the exhibition, with a link to the shop to buy posters and the Gay Icons exhibition book, which features all the selectors and their subjects.

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