Joan Crawford
Diva worship
Gay men and their affinity for strong women
Published Thursday, 17-Jul-2003 in issue 812
‘Are you a friend of Dorothy?’
I remember the first time I heard those words. I was on an elevator, leaving a city council meeting, and an older gentleman who I had never seen before said this to me. Growing up in the ’80s, I had heard people use that term on TV, often as a not-so-nice way of implying that someone was gay, but that wasn’t the case here. There was a sense of camaraderie, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I am too,” and it struck me as being both funny and sincere, if not a tad anachronistic. Little did I know that this type of code-speak was a common way of coming out to someone without really coming out, less than 30 years ago (the “Dorothy” reference comes from Judy Garland’s character in The Wizard of Oz). It made me curious about our seemingly ubiquitous diva culture, a part of GLBT history that I couldn’t quite identify with.
The diva ‘underground’
Gay role models are everywhere today. From fictional characters like Jack McPhee on “Dawson’s Creek” and Will on “Will & Grace” to professional athletes who have come out after retirement. Just like former NFL player Esera Tuaolo and former San Diego Padre Billy Bean, gay men are everywhere. They can be just about anything they want to be, from the head of a corporation, such as philanthropist and Quark Inc. founder Tim Gill, to a member of the U.S. Congress, like Barney Frank. But as everyone knows, it wasn’t always that way.
In a time when it was a crime for gay men to congregate, for them to kiss and to dance together in public, being gay wasn’t just looked down upon by society, it was considered a mental disorder. For most gay men, being out was not an option and there were no gay role models.
So who did gay men look up to? Who did they idolize before the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue came along? The divas.
Many old school divas served as icons and role models for gay men. In Judy Garland, the little girl who overcame her stage fright by creating an alter ego who battled with addiction, gay men saw their own duality between their public personas and their closeted battles with loneliness. Joan Crawford screaming, “Don’t fuck with me fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo,” asserted herself in a way that most gay men wanted to, but couldn’t. And when Bette Davis said, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” she put into words the feelings of many gay struggling with their sexual orientation.
Of course, many still view Judy Garland as the grand diva of them all. Her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz follows the story of a lonely, misunderstood, small-town kid who has a great adventure in a colorful new world — where a new family of friends (in various stages of hiding) come out to help her on her journey to the mythical land of Oz . A Wicked Witch of the West (think J. Edgar Hoover, Jesse Helms, Dr. Laura or Antonin Scalia) tries to curtail her journey by imprisoning her in a creepy castle. Then there’s that “Over the Rainbow” number so many gay men and divas have covered.
Eventually, Garland’s real life battle with drugs and alcohol led to her death, making her a tragic heroine among the gay community. The news of her passing ostensibly let to the infamous Stonewall Riots in New York City, and thus, some would say, became an incendiary catalyst for the modern GLBT rights movement.
As much as there is a supposed gay underground associated with the diva phenomenon, even Time magazine noted Garland’s popularity with gay men in a review of her final concert on August 18, 1967, at New York’s Palace Theatre. The article read, “A disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual. The boys in the tight trousers roll their eyes, tear at their hair and practically levitate from their seats, particularly when Judy sings [‘Over the Rainbow’].” In the same article the author said of Garland’s connection to the gay community, “Judy was beaten up by life, embattled and ultimately had to become more masculine. She has the power that homosexuals would like to have, and they attempt to attain it by idolizing her.”
Defining the diva
Pronunciation: ‘de-va
“To see a strong beautiful woman being a bitch; that’s just really entertaining.” — Cher impersonator Chad Michaels
Function: noun
Plural: divas
Etymology: Italian, literally, goddess, from Latin, feminine of divus divine, god — more at DEITY
1 : a principal female singer in an opera or concert organization
2 : an extremely sensitive, vain, or undisciplined person
When you say diva, images of elaborate and dramatic VH1 concerts come to mind for many gay men. But the term has been around since practically the beginning of recorded history, first used to describe Greek goddesses like Hera, who persevered despite her philandering husband Zeus, or Aphrodite, the goddess who was the embodiment of love and feminine beauty. Later it was applied to real life women like Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who challenged the might of Rome, and Nefertiti, who was exalted for her legendary beauty.
The first generation of what people today call divas emerged in the ’20s, when the entertainment industry exploded with the larger than life presence of the women of stage and screen. While diva may be a mainstream term nowadays, it is certainly one that the gay community has taken ownership of. Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and silent film star Helen Hayes were among the many show queens who have been elevated to the status of diva, but how did they earn those titles?
“Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, they are the classic bitches and a lot of gay guys find that really funny, to see a strong beautiful woman being a bitch; that’s just really entertaining,” said Chad Michaels, who has made a career of impersonating modern day diva Cher. “You can go back even further to the girls of the ’30s and ’20s and silent films, and they are just painted up and beautiful.”
Singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, Peggy Lee or the quintessential jazz diva Billie Holliday (who died as a result of her heroine addiction), have been crowned with the title of diva. These women have maintained their popularity long after their deaths, providing a timeless appeal for younger gay men just discovering their music.
“We didn’t count them as divas, that’s a new word to me, but I think they were the same thing,” said Rick Ford, the president of All Worlds Video. Ford worked in Long Beach and San Francisco in the ’60s and ’70 s when he was 22 years old and just coming out. “We stood outside the stage door and did that sort of thing for hours.”
Ford was one of the lucky men who saw greats like Ethel Merman perform live. He even waited on Cher in a restaurant in the early days of her career and saw Barbra Streisand perform when she was just 19 years old — long before these women would evolve into the larger than life personalities they are today, earning them the title of diva. However, for Ford the highlight was seeing Garland in her final U.S. performance at The Greek Theater.
“I will never forget the time I saw her at the Greek Theater,” Ford said, noting that the audience was very gay and that the occasion was indeed a social event. “When Judy came out on stage we just went crazy. In those days, a standing ovation was a big thing. Now you get a standing ovation for anything, but they were very rare then. A standing ovation was the highest thing you could do for a performer, and now it’s just a gimmick. It doesn’t have the pizzazz it did years ago.”
He also noted that while he saw her final performance in the United States, it wasn’t her final scheduled performance.
“I went through a ticket broker and the ticket broker said ‘I can get you much better seats Tuesday or Wednesday,’ because she was going to be at the Greek for five nights,” Ford recalled. “I said, ‘No, she hasn’t showed up the last two times. I want to go the first night in case she doesn’t show up after that,’ and she did show up and she was wonderful. It was just one of greatest evenings imaginable. And then that night she stayed with Johnny Mathis and tripped over his poodle and broke her arm and never did another show…. I was so fortunate to have seen her.”
It wasn’t the first time Ford had seen Garland perform; his first encounter gives testament to the modern notion of the diva as demanding prima donna.
“Judy was always late for her show,” Ford explained. “She would do these half-hour shows that lasted for about 13 weeks and she had Merman and Streisand. For many, many weeks she wouldn’t come out of her dressing room until she was ready and the audience — who would have free tickets — would leave.”
Fortunately for CBS, who was taping the shows, there was a gay bar located just across the street from the CBS studios.
“One time I was at the gay bar and they ran across the street from [CBS] to get us to all to walk over and do ‘The Judy Garland Show,’” Ford said. “She wouldn’t come on stage until 11:00 at night and they were supposed to start taping at 6:00 p.m.”
Close to 40 people from the bar went to see the show, but even those involved in the production of the show, like singer Mel Torme, made a joke of the fact that she had a decidedly gay following. In his 1970 memoir The Other Side of the Rainbow, about working on “The Judy Garland Show,” Torme said it was “a rule, not an exception,” that studio audiences were “heavily populated” with “Odd Fellows,” and quoted an unidentified member of the production team as saying, “Judy? Yeah, she’s the Queen of the Fags!”
In recent years a new generation of women has risen up to take on the title of diva. Women such as Aretha Franklin, Cher, Tina Turner, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand all wear the crown now, and these women are just as adored by the gay community as their predecessors. Just like their predecessors they have all had their ups and downs.
Turner overcame domestic violence to succeed, Streisand has made a career of being a recluse with numerous farewell performances, Ross is still singing and getting into trouble due to alcohol and drugs, and Cher survived an infomercial debacle and numerous celebrity romances to keep her career alive through five decades.
When asked who he sees as a diva today, Ford said, “The only one in my lifetime that would ring a bell is Cher. Of course she has been around since the dinosaurs. She is in my age bracket. I went to her concert [in San Diego] and there were still 60-, 70- and 80-year-old people there and they were going crazy too, so it’s not J-Lo or the ones that younger people would relate to.”
Identifying with the diva
One thing that all divas have in common is that they have stood up to or defied the misogynistic culture — either in their private lives, like the timid Garland or abused Holliday did by creating larger than life names on stage, like Cher, with her risqué outfits and outspoken nature, or Joan Crawford, whose brassy performances in board meetings was depicted in the film, Mommy Dearest. They have all made a public display of their diva-like qualities. Downfalls or not, these women challenged gender roles, and in most cases, looked good doing it.
“I think that a lot of gay guys like to idolize something that is extremely beautiful and alluring — something that they don’t really aspire to but it’s like that fantasy,” Michaels says. “Then, if that person or diva can entertain them and endear herself to gay boys, I don’t think there is any way of breaking that.”
In some ways, it could be said that divas are a lot like drag queens, which would explain why they have become popular characters for female impersonators.
With the watered down use of the term and the rise of mainstream role models in gay culture, it’s no wonder that divas don’t hold the same power over gay men that they once did.
“When you come out, you become more secure with your sexuality when you realize that the human being has both male and female qualities of sexuality,” explained Jacob Leatherberry, a member of the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus. “Appreciating divas tends to go with the female qualities as well as male qualities, because they have a masculine quality about them. They are very strong with what they do. They are very brassy or bold, kind of like a mixture of both sexes in one package.”
Young people today are fortunate enough to have role models who don’t identify with the divas because they have much more positive life experiences, but divas ruled in the days when it was much more difficult to be out and gay.
“That’s kind of just standard homework for anyone who does female impersonation,” Michaels said about his knowledge of old school divas. “Judy Garland, your classic tragic figure, which is the kind of thing a lot of gay guys can relate to. A lot of gay guys have had a bad time in their lives when they’ve had bad love, they’ve had troubles with drug or alcohol abuse, and she’s someone they can relate to and maybe feel some of their pain through her.”
In her performances, Garland’s songs spoke to the hearts of gay men with titles like “The Man That Got Away,” about unrequited love: “The road gets rougher, it’s lonelier and tougher. With hope you burn up. Tomorrow he might turn up.” And long before the Village People made an anthem of “Go West,” Garland sang “San Francisco” proclaiming, “Saaaan Fraaan-cisco. When I arrive, I really come alive.”
Garland acknowledged her gay following once, saying, “When I die I have visions of fags singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half mast.”
Little did she know what her death would truly lead to. With so many gay men identifying with and idolizing Garland in the ’60s, is it purely coincidence that the modern day gay civil rights movement began on the day of Garland’s funeral? Some say that emotion-charged event may have been a contributing factor in pushing things to the breaking point at Stonewall.
The San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus recently explored the diva phenomenon with their Viva La Diva concert. For Leatherberry, who grew up in Detroit listening to the Motown divas like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Diana Ross, the concert gave the 29-year-old the opportunity to learn more about these and other legendary women of music.
“The reason gay men identify with divas, especially the older gay men, who’ve always dealt with discrimination,” Leatherberry said, “[is that] it seems like divas have kind of been through the wringer as far as discrimination and oppression and such. After they have been through the wringer they prove their tests and their trials, kind of like what gay men go through.
“Maybe the reason we love divas so much is because they do have a lot of tragedy and drama in their lives, something to take away from our own drama and tragedy in our lives,” added Leatherberry. “We learn from their mistakes so we don’t make the same ones.”
Leatherberry said he feels the behavior of divas often inspires gay men to take society head-on. “After a while, as a gay man you get kind of tired of what people think and you say ‘I’m here. This is who I am. If you don’t like it, deal with it, get over it.’”
Downfall of the diva?
Has the title of diva lost its shine in recent years? It seems every year a new batch of divas are crowned by either the gay community, looking for their newest dance music queen, or by the executives at VH1, naming whomever they can get to perform for their annual divas concert.
“We use the word so loosely — from Nicole to Coco to Judy or Mae West,” Ford says. “I don’t know how to define it, but to me it would be someone that has really made a mark in the entertainment business and not someone that’s diva difficult. I don’t look at it as a difficult person.”
Judy Garland
With the watered down use of the term and the rise of mainstream role models in gay culture, it’s no wonder that divas don’t hold the same power over gay men that they once did. Once alienated from society, gay men have made great strides; the conflicts we face today aren’t solely about fighting to be accepted for who we are.
Just 30 years ago, coming out meant a life of social exile, but today it is increasingly being viewed as a sign of strength, of being able to take pride in oneself and live an open life without fear. Gay men, for the most part, are now accepted as a part of society and not persecuted by laws like they once were.
While our community still struggles for marriage rights and to overturn the impotent and outdated “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy, most gay men today are more concerned with their careers and mortgages, and don’t seem to have the time or need for divas.
“I think it’s like having that diva pastime in your life has become pushed to the side,” said Michaels. “You know, having time to be a Cher fan or Madonna fan. I think for a lot of us, especially in my age bracket, in my early 30s, there are other things that are a lot more important than that.”
However, Michaels said he feels some of these women will always hold a special place in gay men’s hearts. “When Cher comes to town, for gay guys, that’s going to be a big event on their calendar … to take people’s minds off of what’s going on in their lives. You know, they will be able to put on their Cher albums.”

Send the story “Diva worship”

Recipient's e-mail: 
Your e-mail: 
Additional note: 
E-mail Story     Print Print Story     Share Bookmark & Share Story
Classifieds Place a Classified Ad Business Directory Real Estate
Contact Advertise About GLT