Sarah Waters and other gay celebrities elect their own “Gay Icons”

The National Portrait Gallery in London commissioned a panel of 10 gay icons to pick 60 figures, gay or straight, who have inspired them and the community. The only rule was that the figures had to have been photographed (i.e. don’t pick William Shakespeare). The end result is an exhibit called “Gay Icons,” which runs from this July through next October at the UK gallery.

The panel consisted of Waheed Alli, Alan Hollinghurst, Elton John, Jackie Kay, Billie Jean King, Ian McKellen, Chris Smith, Ben Summerskill, Sandi Toksvig and Sarah Waters.

Openly gay author Sarah Waters

The resulting list is diverse and surprising. In the exhibit, there are portraits of Virginia Woolf, Ellen DeGeneres, k.d. lang, Will Young (winner of Britain’s Pop Idol) and Nelson Mandela.

Virgina Woolf and Will Young

I’m sure Will Young never thought he would be in an icon exhibit with Nelson Mandela, but I think the fact that he is makes me like the exhibit all the more.

Nelson Mandela

To me, this shows that courage can come in all different shapes and sizes. I’m not trying to say that coming out on a reality show is akin to fighting apartheid. (Although I’m sure some narcissistic reality TV contestants would beg to differ with me on this point.) What I’m saying is that acts of heroism don’t always have to be epic scale in order to be heroic. Will Young took his chances with his budding music career by coming out to an entire nation. He may not have found a cure for cancer, but I think his coming out was courageous.

Of course, no gay icon exhibit could be complete without Harvey Milk.

I hope that the exhibit and the movie Milk are stepping stones for making Harvey Milk a universal hero, not just a gay one.

Who are your gay icons?