Who is a lesbian icon?

Last year, Tatum O’Neal told Harper’s Bazaar:

“I’ve never really had any gay women icons—maybe I’ll be the next gay icon!…I hope I’ll inspire women to experiment more and try dating women if they want to. If I can help a little girl who feels trapped to come out—oh, my gosh, that would mean the world to me.”

Rosie's Theater Kids' 12th Annual Gala CelebrationPhoto by Mike Pont/WireImage

“Gay icon” is an interesting choice of label. The concept of a “gay icon” to many triggers images of celebrities like Cher or Lady Gaga—larger than life, often campy entertainment industry figures who embrace and celebrate the queer community…but also who are largely icons more to gay men than to lesbians. 

On the other hand, in context, O’Neal seems to actually mean that she would like to be a gay role model. There is a difference: both “iconhood” and “role modeling” are abstract, somewhat subjective concepts, but they each have slightly separate but meaningful (although not mutually exclusive) roles in the queer community. The fact that most “gay icons” seem to resonate more with men than women, however, is notable. Gay icons can be powerful allies because of their high-profile visibility, which the queer community benefits from. So where are the gay icons for the gay female community? Perhaps O’Neal is onto something. 

To begin with, whether O’Neal wants to be a role model or an icon, I welcome both as important roles in the queer community. A working definition of a gay role model might be an openly gay, bi, or queer person whose positive behavior, example, or success generates respect from others and inspires them—particularly young people—to feel more comfortable embracing their sexual orientation. Role models inspire individuals to find their own inner strength by example. Although a celebrity might not consciously set out to be a role model, many come to feel a strong sense of responsibility to be a good public face for the LGBT community.

As British actress Alicya Eyo, who played lesbians Ruby Haswell in Emmerdale and Denny Blood in Bad Girls, told the UK-based charity Lesbian and Gay Foundation in 2012:

“Some people will see me as a role model. I feel lucky to be in the position I’m in and can speak out about being gay. I do feel I have a responsibility to do that.”

A gay icon, on the other hand, is a celebrity of any sexual orientation or gender who achieves cult status within much of the gay community because of their glamor, flamboyance, wit, or strength through adversity. Most gay icons have supported gay social movements. Some, like Judy Garland or Princess Diana, led tragic lives.

If queer role models are inspirational at the individual level, gay icons tend to be inspirational at the community level. They often help the LGBT community celebrate its diversity and non-conformity, and champion gay rights to heterosexual populations. Cher, for example, was the keynote speaker at the 1997 PFLAG national convention, and also played a lesbian in Silkwood (1983), for which she received an Oscar nomination. Cyndi Lauper advocated for the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and in 2010 her True Colors Fund launched the Give a Damn campaign to help get straight people more involved in queer rights. Because the two categories are not mutually exclusive, a person can be both an icon and a role model, for example, Ellen DeGeneres.

Cyndi Lauper with another lesbian icon, Billie Jean King
2015 Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative GalaPhoto by Jim Spellman/WireImage

Lauper told The Advocate in 2008, “It wasn’t until my sister came out in the early ’70s that I became more aware of the bigoted slurs and the violence against a community of people…who were gay,” after which time she became an active gay rights advocate.

Many modern American gay icons are heterosexual female performers who garnered a large following within the gay male community over the course of their careers, such as Bette Middler and Barbra Streisand. These gay icons often have a symbiotic and mutually respectful relationship with the gay community. Other gay icons globally include Oscar Wilde, the Egyptian singer Dalida in Italy and the Middle East, Vince Ganda in the Philippines, Willeke Alberti in the Netherlands, Marianne Rosenberg in Germany, and Ajda Pekkan in Turkey, to name just a few.

A lesbian-specific icon is sometimes called a “dykon.” Dykons are often powerful women who are or are rumored to be gay, or heterosexual women who have played an iconic queer role on film. AfterEllen has previously identified as dykons specifically: Joan Jett, Mariel Hemmingway, Karen Carpenter, Eden Riegel, Helen Reddy, and Gina Gershon.

Many more than just these women would qualify as dykons—for example, Abby Wambach and Ellen Page—but even so, overall, the number of dykons is a fraction of the huge number of gay icons esteemed by gay men. This may be caused by a variety of possible factors. As just a few ideas, perhaps queer women approach the idea of iconhood differently than men.  Perhaps women prefer role models to icons. Whatever the cause, the lesbian community needs more icons.

The MAKERS Conference 2016 - Day 2 Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for AOL

We need icons who will enthusiastically, exuberantly embrace our community; who will champion and celebrate our culture. Many celebrities support gay rights in general. We need celebrities to adopt the lesbian community in particular as their own. Sara Bareilles sells “Future Mrs. Bareilles” shirts. Kelly Clarkson recognizes Kezbos/Kesbians—her lesbian fanbase, both great starts.


“To me, it’s about being accepting of an idea that we’re all the same community; it’s almost like, I can’t believe we’re still having the conversation,” Sara Bareilles said.

In addition to more heterosexual female dykons, the lesbian/bi community could benefit from more heterosexual male dykons as well. What if Adam Levine—who has a gay brother—made a point of welcoming queer women to Maroon 5 concerts and specifically called them out in a positive way when they came? What if John Legend—who has had lesbian couples in two of his music videos as well as Tig Notaro and Laverne Cox—purposely tried to build a queer female fan following and gave his gay female followers a catchy name? These are things that gay icons like Kathy Griffin and Kylie Minogue do for gay men already, so is it so fantastic an idea that the same behavior be shown to gay women? Men have benefitted from having gay icons for years. Perhaps it’s time the queer female community get some of our own.

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