There is a popular story in the modern gay rights movement that is often said to have begun with the Stonewall riot in New York City. It was June 1969. Judy Garland, iconic star of the gay favourite The Wizard of Oz had just passed away. Many gay folks identified with the actress’s real life struggles, and many drag acts imitated her campiness. Some of them gathered on the fateful night of 28th June in a gay pub called Stonewall Inn, unsuspecting of the impending police raid.
When the police arrived at the Inn and started arresting patrons, they had no idea their action was stirring already volatile emotions. The gay men, lesbians and transvestites were deep in mourning for their diva, and were in no mood for the harassment. An officer shoved a transvestite, who responded by hitting him on the head with his purse. As a lesbian struggled with an arresting officer, she shouted to the bystanders, “Why don’t you guys do something?”
The crowd went berserk. The Stonewall Riots made history as the often-harassed bar patrons finally turned grief into anger and courage, and fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities.
While the Riot was real, the Judy Garland connection was tougher to verify. The long-standing love affair between gay men and their divas, however, remains easily observable into the 21st century. Barbra Streisand and Kylie Minogue are just two examples of gay icons whose enduring careers are largely supported by legions of their loyal gay fans.
I shall leave the more solemn task of analysing and documenting gay icons and their fans to scholars. The reason for me writing this article is simpler: friends.
For the last few weeks, I sensed a lot of turbulence amongst gay friends and myself on Facebook. Cordial adults turned sappy, irrational and downright hostile. My Wall was first assaulted by news of Madonna’s leaked single, then a brief euphoria that she pulled off a huge performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. Hot on the heels was Whitney Houston’s drug-related drowning, and tributes bloomed as friends posted her old videos. Before the familiar tune of “I Will Always Love You” started fading, Madonna’s new album dropped. The hostility between fans of diva-in-training Lady Gaga (whom Madonna labeled “reductive”) and fans of Madonna was renewed. Somewhere in between, Adele won a truck load of Grammys and suddenly Gaga’s blond ambition for the Queen Bee’s hive no longer seemed assured. To some fans, it wasn’t enough that they adore one, but their friends must hate the other.
By the relentless hair-pulling on every diva strand on Facebook, you would have thought someone just insulted someone else’s mother!
After a few bumpy exchanges, I learnt a few things:
1. It is silly fun to insist that one diva’s song/album is better than another, but don’t expect the other guy to drop his divas and embrace yours. The entire exercise is futile – no one will change their views. Taste is subjective.
2. I shouldn’t feel guilty for caring about pop idols well into my 40s. I still care for a new Madonna / Gaga / Britney album, just as straight men my age are still cheering their favourite sports stars on the football fields or golf courses. Some like gifted sportsmen, some like strong female performers.
3. Being commercial artists, pop divas are savvy, clever promoters of their works. Charlie Hides, Youtube’s favorite cross-dresser, learnt a supposed-war between Madonna and Gaga is more interesting than Madonna’s love fest with Britney and Kylie. He is earning hundreds and thousands of Youtube ‘likes’ by impersonating the two ‘feuding’ divas. Madonna herself knows very well that a simple word like “reductive” can trigger a fan war with Gaga’s little Monsters, and it just keeps her name on our lips and ensures her continued relevance.
I also learnt that I do not have to justify my views on any divas. I won’t pretend to miss Whitney Houston. She was richly rewarded for her good work with millions of dollars – including my money – and she was responsible for her choices in life. I won’t pay S$400 (US$320) to go to a Faye Wong concert because I prefer my divas to move a little bit more on stage. Those are my views, call me a bitch, I don’t mind. And my friends are fully entitled to their views as well.
Finally, I learnt that, important as my divas are to me, they should not come between my friends and I. I can’t have tea with Maddy, and no amount of Adele can substitute a shoulder to cry on if I fall. When I cannot find a single tune from my 100,000 song collection to figure out my next step, the crucial voice will more likely be a phone call away.
Judy Garland might be the star, but it takes a real handbag-wielding transvestite or a lesbian sister to start our revolution. Before you start a war with gay friends over diva trivia, remember who will be the ones who will truly be there for you. Save your fury and indignation for the people standing outside our hive – for those who are calling us undeserved names, for those who want to see us humiliated, and those who think our kind of love deserves jail-time.
In short, love your divas, but love your brothers and sisters more.