Sunday, 26 July 2009

My Big Gay Icon

The most interesting thing about the Gay Icons exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery isn't the absence of William Shakespeare (the 'icons' have to be in photographs, so Will didn't stand a chance), Oscar Wilde, Kylie Minogue or even Judy Garland, it's the diversity on offer. Even if Elton John's choice of Graham Taylor (manager of Watford FC) is the most perverse thing in the room (was Taylor gay? or maybe he soothed the pop star after his car-crash marriage to Renate Blauel?).
The images themslves are often banal - though Lily Savage's embittered fag-filled face on Blackpool pier is priceless - the choices odd and sometimes obscure, and yet, the pleasure of spending an hour and half in the company of men and women, gay and straight, black and white, who have stood against the tide of prejudice and hatred lifted my spirits.
For those, like the Observer's Barbara Ellen, who bemoan the lack of trash pop tarlets in the line-up as suitable inspiration for a youngster coming out from a provincial town I say, check out history. Metropolitan gay youngsters may have a dizzy few years on a diet of plastic pop - but losing it bars and clubs was never the road to liberation. It was won on the streets, against the odds and in people's faces. It's like suggesting the Suffragettes would have been more effective by attending the music hall rather than chaining themselves to railings. The word 'icon' has been cheapened, yet if its sense of a venerated image isn't to be lost then the likes of Nelson Mandela, Bessy Smith, Peter Tatchell and, even Lily Savage are the best torch bearers for tomorrow's gay youth.

By the bye, my 'gay icons' in no particular order are: John the Baptist (Christianity's matre d'), Leigh Bowery, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Buddha, puff pastry, things that are shiny and move (see also disco balls/Christmas), bubble wrap and Jean Genet.

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