In 1986, when I was fifteen, I saw the film Cabaret for the first time. Before the year was over, I had probably watched that one movie at least forty times, and I’ve probably seen it forty times since. As one might expect, I can quote entire scenes from memory. Additionally, I seem to have memorized every note of the score, every dance step, every camera angle, every raised eyebrow.
I didn’t know why I loved Cabaret so much. One might blame Brian, the character played by Michael York, the leading man in the film’s seemingly heterosexual love story. He’s gay. Well, arguably gay; it might be more accurate to say bisexual. Nevertheless, the first time I saw the film, the discovery of Brian’s desire for another man hit me like a ton of bricks; I sat in my living room, mouth agape, literally unable to move. Even today, I’m taken aback when I hear Brian speaking his truth for the very first time.
So yes, although I’d remain in the closet for another ten years, there was likely some sort of unconscious recognition of myself there. But years later, I now know what truly drew me to insert this particular cassette into the VCR over, and over, and over … and her name was Liza.
Every gay man seems to have a diva of choice, and mine is and forever will be Liza Minnelli. In college, I wore out my copies of “Live at Carnegie Hall” and “Liza with a ‘Z’”; in the early 90s, I saw her live in concert three times. I realize that she is now perceived by many as a parody of her former self, but I don’t care. Fat, thin, out of rehab or on the way back in, making a come back or coming back to earth, single or married to yet another gay husband, I just love her.
Logic would dictate that as a homosexual man, I would have chosen a different sort of person to worship. And by different I mean … I don’t know, another man? Mel Gibson had chiseled features, a sculpted physique, and some semblance of sanity in the mid-1980s … why not Mel? Why not any number of handsome (male) matinee idols?
I know that I’m not alone among gay men when it comes to the diva thing. Few adore Liza Minnelli to the extent that I do, but whether you’ve chosen Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Cher, Joan Crawford, Bette Midler, Lucille Ball, Anne Hathaway, Bette Davis, Madonna, Patti LaBelle, Tallulah Bankhead, Sarah Jessica Parker, or Christina Aguilera (or some combination of the above); many (if not most) gay men of all generations have pledged their devotion to one or more female icons who speak to our collective soul.
Why do we love them so much? There are likely as many answers as there are divas to choose from, but they do share several things in common.
First of all, they love us as much as we love them. A true diva knows that she has struck gold when she wins the hearts, minds, and wallets of gay men everywhere. Compare us to other groups of fans, and we rank up there with Deadheads as the most loyal followers in America. Also, they’re really good at what they do. Whether it’s singing, acting, dancing, looking fabulous, or reinventing their public persona every three years, there’s a standard of quality that cannot be undermined. Taken as a group, the gay guys have always exuded exceptional taste.
But I have a theory about our beloved icons. I believe that gay men love these tough-as-nails, glamorous, gutsy broads because they validate our existence every time they teach us that you don’t have to be masculine in order to be strong – that, in fact, toughness of character is the toughest kind of toughness out there. In a world that tells us we're weak, they make us feel as strong as we truly are.
I’m fully aware that the stereotype of the mincing, effeminate gay man is just that: a stereotype. There are some gay men that fit that description, and there are also others, who are jocks, bookworms, bikers, preppies, cowboys, etc. But almost all of us have felt the sting of discrimination at some point in our lives; we’ve all been called names. Faggot. Homo. Plus a few others that are unprintable here. But it’s not uncommon for gay men to be called simply: Girl. Pansy. Fairy. You can be as butch as you want to be, but there’s no escaping that for many homophobes, you’re as low as a man can get because you’ve made yourself a woman, and there can’t be anything worse than that.
Enter the diva. She’s undeniably female, and stronger than any man in her path. She’s probably been criticized at some point for being somehow less than ladylike. Ball-breaker. Man-eater. If nothing else, she’s a survivor, proving her strength not through attitude, but simply by standing back up every time life knocks her down.
And yes, there's occasionally a moment of vulnerability. I think of the moment in The Devil Wears Prada, when Meryl Streep's character has learned that her husband is filing for divorce. She's bereft. She's sad. She's completely without makeup (seriously, she looks awful). We can't tell if she's sad to lose this particular husband, or simply sad that her life is structured in such a way that doesn't allow a successful relationship to co-exist with her true calling. Whatever it is, she's clearly having a bad day. She speaks in a quiet, wounded voice. We realize, perhaps for the first time, that she's human. And the next day, the hair and make-up are once again flawless, and she's once again her old self. Whatever that was the night before, it wasn't anything that was going to last. And the hearts of gay men everywhere swoon. Sure, she was a nicer person when her heart was breaking in two, but nice doesn't pay the rent. That moment of vulnerability was the exception that proved the rule; knowing there's a beating heart inside the Ice Queen makes her, if anything, more fabulous.
We don’t simply enjoy these women; we need them. Even in 2009, we need them to be tough, we need them to be fabulous, we need them to be unafraid. And when the world is cold, we need them to belt it to the rafters, “What good is sitting all alone in your room? Come, hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret …”