The idea of the “gay icon” has been present in mainstream culture ever since Judy Garland slid into those ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Since then, many have taken up the baton: Garland’s daughter, Liza (with a Z!); Barbra Streisand; Madonna; Cher; Elton John; Bette Middler; Lady Gaga — the list goes on, and on, and on. The tradition of the gay icon is a fun one — and certainly a glamorous one — but it’s disconcerting when you realize that the traditional idea of a gay icon centers on non-queer pop stars making a living off of the subset of the gay community that frequents piano bars and dance halls.
This isn’t problematic in and of itself: Everybody deserves to be entertained. But the collective identity of “gay” people has since outgrown the glitzy aesthetic that, in the ’70s and ’80s, had come to be associated with the word “gay.” For that reason, we’re looking at musicians who could be considered “queer” icons rather than “gay” icons: People who not only live a certain lifestyle, but create art that reflects and highlights that lifestyle.
Part of the difficulty in putting together a list like this — and it’s a happy difficulty — is that, in 2014, it’s not difficult to find musicians who identify as queer. (Who would’ve thought that an overabundance of publicly queer musicians would ever be a problem?) What’s more difficult (and again, happily so), is that the queer community is so vast and diverse that one queer person’s icon is not going to appeal to every other queer person. (This is also the problem with any entertainment that markets itself to a “gay” audience — thanks to the Internet, and the general acceptance of queer lifestyles, it’s basically as effective as marketing to a “straight” audience.)
So, here are five very different queer musicians who are worthy of becoming somebody’s queer icon. The list is not all-encompassing, and contemporary acts that have already peaked as icons (Rufus Wainright, Antony Hegarty) aren’t included. A year from now, this list may well be irrelevant. Such are the times we live in. With that in mind, here are our picks for 2014, in no particular order.