Gay Icons

I recently went to the Gay Icons exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: a display of beautiful and iconic portraits. But not particularly of iconic gay people. It is actually a selection of the icons of ten high-profile gay figures. High-profile but not necessarily über-famous: from author Sarah Waters to Lord Waheed Alli, from actor Sir Ian McKellen to political lobbyist Ben Summerskill. Their selection ranges from popular icons to artists, intellectuals or political figures – who may or may not be gay themselves – including The Village People, Tchaikovsky, Martina Navratilova, Joe Dallessandro (above) and Francis Bacon.

I liked the fact that this exhibition challenges stereotypes and features successful and remarkable people above all, who happen to be gay. I mean that these icons are admirable anyway, for their political involvement, literary or artistic work or sport achievements, and show a somehow ‘serious’ side that goes beyond the way gays are sometimes portrayed in the media, in society or through still ongoing prejudices, beyond the party and club scene for instance. Some icons or selectors may be slightly obscure, but at the end of the day, a Lord or political activist might not be as popular as a pop star, yet do more for the gay cause or for society.

However, I was puzzled because I could not engage so much with the selection – well I am not gay, so maybe that’s why! – but I think most of my gay friends might not either because I doubt their icons would be the ones featured. Maybe it is a generation thing, since most selectors are quite older and would probably not have selected Lily Allen, although her song ‘F*** You’ has become a gay anthem (see videos here and here).

But I do not think it is the only reason: my greatest gay icons would have deserved to be featured in this exhibition, and they are from all age, era, or country. They are my favourite designers – JP Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen – my favourite authors and poets – Oscar Wilde, Verlaine, Rimbaud – my favourite musicians and artists – Pete Doherty, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring. And all of my best friends indeed.

Pictures: Joe Dallesandro by Paul Morrissey (1968) & Lily Allen for GQ

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6 Responses to “Gay Icons”

  1. I loved to be there with you, Alizé! I agree with you, it’s impossible for all of us to share the same icons (even among us, gay people), it really depends on your generation, cultural and social background, geographical origin, etc. But I’m convinced that each of them did contribute in a way to our cause. By the way, my favourite in the exhibit is Ian Roberts, that lovely aussie rugby player who dared to come out of the closet in the tough world that surrounds that sport. All my love for you!!! xx

  2. A really interesting exhibition and a really interesting take on the topic as it becomes more about what inspires than about yet another collection of ‘fame’ portraits…

  3. I have actually been meaning to go to this exhibition. I saw one of those Stonewall adverts at the train station this weekend saying “Some people are gay, get over it”, and it reminded me about the exhibition! Sadly, what with it being Streatham, the advert had been sprayed over by someone.

    I have never really thought about who the gay ‘icons’ would be if one were to choose them, and as such it sounds like such a wonderful exhibition. I would probably be in the same boat as you, I’m straight and I’m pretty sure that my gay friends have quite contemporary gay icons. But yes, sooo many fashion designers to choose from lol, I would totally have Marc Jacobs right up there on the list. Oh and Oscar Wilde has to be the top choice!!

    Hope you’re having an absolutely beautiful week dear 🙂

  4. To be honest i have been avoiding this exhibition because i’ve heard it’s just a selection of the personal icons of a few gay people (isn’t there a football manager in there!?). I wish they’d had some guts and been a bit more selective, rather than just deffering to the gays!
    would you still reccomend going?
    by the way – you might find this interesting: http://tomkatsumi.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/the-wires-omar-little-is-the-first-and-maybe-last-gay-icon/

  5. Victor: I’m glad you liked this exhibition too, I agree with you, everyone has different icons. Lots of mine are gay, amazing artists and talentuous people who inspire me.
    Harry McK: Exactly. This is why I liked this exhibition, it just went beyond the stereotypes and superficiality of the way gays can sometimes be portrayed in the media.
    Dapper Kid: You summarised my point of view. How can they not put any designer as icons?? There’s something wrong! 😉
    Tom Katsumi: As I explained, I have a mixed view about the exhibition: I found it interesting as it challenges stereotypes and the icons chosen may not be famous but truly aspirational and inspirational people who make a difference to the world, and not just pop stars. However, I would have found it more relevant for a younger generation to add the people I mentioned, along with obvious choices such as Oscar Wilde or Rimbaud, which are missing. But then again, my icons, your icons and theirs are different. It is such a subjective notion, and a personal idea. Plus I am not gay, and the selection of the exhibition is made by gay figures. But if you wonder, you should go to make your own opinion about it! x

  6. […] mixed feelings regarding the Gay Icons exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery last time, I nonetheless returned to the Gallery with […]

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