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