Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The divas who helped gays out of the closet

"The subversive nature of a lot of the women who gay men and lesbians take to their hearts should not be underestimated"

Terry Sanderson writes:
In the days before it was possible to create support groups for gay people, we would rally around the flag of our favourite star. I recently saw some old newsreel film from the 1960s of Marlene Dietrich emerging from the stage door of a New York theatre after one of her shows. She was greeted by hundreds of young men – quite obviously non-heterosexuals – whose enthusiasm eventually forced her on to the roof of her car, from where she threw signed photos.

Then, last week, I saw some footage of Madonna on her Sticky & Sweet tour at a huge stadium in Argentina. At the very front of the crowd, arms outstretched, hopelessly reaching for their idol, were young men, and some young women, who obviously – several generations later – had come from the same mould as the Marlene groupies.

The difference between these two events was that Marlene’s admirers were probably still deep in the closet. Remember, it was five years before Stonewall and the Dietrich and Garland concerts were some of the few places gay men could be sure they would be in sympathetic company and enjoy something that was special to their own sensibility. They could sigh in sympathy as Judy crooned moodily about the Man Who Got Away or see Marlene dressed up in top hat and tails singing with deep feeling, love songs to women. When she sang ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face’, the lesbians in the audience knew they were in the presence of a fellow traveller.

With Madonna, the youngsters in the crowd were probably all out and proud but still expressing the same gay preference in entertainment. The subversive nature of a lot of the women who gay men and lesbians take to their hearts should not be underestimated, either.

People like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were undermining the accepted gender roles of their time by being far more powerful than the male co-stars of their films. They portrayed characters that dominated and were self-sufficient in their own lives – something that women weren’t supposed be in those days.

Many lesbians and gay men took comfort from this flouting of society’s rigid rules, and related it to their own lack of conformity. READ MORE