The most widely recognized gay icons are often celebrities who garnered large LGBT fanbases, such as Judy Garland, Madonna, Diana Ross, Britney Spears, Kate Bush, Janet Jackson, Cher, and Lady Gaga. However, the term is also applied to politicians, authors, and other historical figures deemed relatable to LGBT causes.
Many gay icons are celebrities in the entertainment industry, but the label has also been applied to figures in politics, history, sports, literature, and other mediums. Prominent entertainers considered to be gay icons often incorporate themes of acceptance, self-love, and sexuality in their work. Gay icons of all orientations have acknowledged the role that their gay fans have played in their success.
Sappho of Lesbos was an Archaic Greek poet known for composing sentimental lyrics about women. Perceived homoerotism in her poems have led to her becoming a symbol for lesbianism, with her name and home island inspiring the terms sapphic and lesbian respectively. Her sexuality, and the themes in her poetry have been extensively discussed and reinterpreted by scholars.
The 3rd century Christian martyr Saint Sebastian is one of the earliest known gay icons, due to his depiction in artwork as a beautiful, agonied young man. Historian Richard A. Kaye states that "Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of a tortured closet case."
In the 1890s, Irish poet Oscar Wilde, himself also called a gay icon, was incarcerated and exiled for his sexuality, and adopted the pseudonym "Sebastian Melmoth" after the saint. Gay playwright Tennessee Williams used the saint's name for the martyred character Sebastian in his 1957 play, Suddenly Last Summer.
Prior to the French Revolution, opponents of the French monarchy regularly circulated pornographic propaganda alleging that Marie Antoinette was engaged in a lesbian relationship with the Princesse de Lamballe. While the rumors of Antoinette's sexuality were unfounded, they led to her being interpreted as an early lesbian icon in works by gay authors, such as Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) and Jean Genet's The Maids (1947).
In the 1950s, the phrase "friend of Dorothy" became used as a slang term for homosexuals. This term is attributed both to well-known author and fellow gay icon Dorothy Parker, and to Garland's prominent role as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
Highly regarded by the LGBT community due to her work with gay men suffering from AIDS, Diana, Princess of Wales, is considered to be a gay icon. The hardships she faced during her life within the British royal family and her struggles with bulimia have been cited as factors to which members of the LGBT community can mostly connect. Writing for Them, David Levesley described Diana as "a symbol of the familial oppression many queer people know all too well," and added that "[queer people] admire her for how long she lasted in the face of a shitty situation. Is there anything more queer than a fabulous woman trapped in a bleak household?" James Greig from Vice also held a similar viewpoint, stating that "her status as a tragic diva aside, it's undeniable that Diana made real, material changes to the lives of LGBT people – particularly through the work she did around AIDS." In an article for Newsweek, Desmond O'Connor wrote that Diana's work with dying HIV+ gay men was crucial for reminding "the people of Great Britain that their 'untouchable' sons deserved to be loved."
In 2009, a panel including Sir Ian McKellen and Alan Hollinghurst chose Diana's portrait to be shown in the Gay Icons exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London. In October 2017, the Attitude magazine honoured Diana with its Legacy Award for her HIV/AIDS work. Prince Harry accepted the award on behalf of his mother.
Mariah Carey has demonstrated allyship since the early beginnings of her career. She has shown her love for her LGBTQ+ fans numerous times, including a 2003 performance at G-A-Y in London. Furthermore, Carey also won a GLAAD award for Allyship.
Kate Bush has been cited as an influence by respected artists like Sir Elton John, who is openly gay and credits Bush's music with helping him to overcome his alcoholism. Fellow gay icon Cher has also expressed admiration of Bush's work. Her debut single "Wuthering Heights" topped the charts and became a global success. The music video for the song in which she dances in the moors in a red dress has become iconic among the LGBTQ community. One of her less influential albums, Lionheart (1978), featured a song titled "Kashka From Baghdad", which regaled to the listener the tale of a gay couple living together in sin, which was quite revolutionary for its time. Since 2016, Kate Bush fans have gathered in locations all over the world and taken to recreate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" video in an event dubbed The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever. Men and women in attendance to the event don red dresses or red in general and recreate the choreography observed in the video as a tribute. Bush, who has seen a clip of one of the events, described the tribute by her fans as "very touching and sweet".
Pop musician Madonna has become a preeminent gay icon. The Advocate's Steve Gdula commented that "back in the 1980s and even the early 1990s, the release of a new Madonna video or single was akin to a national holiday, at least among her gay fans." Gdula also stated that during this period, concurrent with the rise of the AIDS epidemic, "when other artists tried to distance themselves from the very audience that helped their stars to rise, Madonna only turned the light back on her gay fans and made it burn all the brighter."
Janet Jackson garnered a substantial LGBT following during the 1990s with her sixth studio album The Velvet Rope (1997). The album was honored by the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and received the award for Outstanding Music Album at the 9th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in 1998 for its songs that dealt with sexual orientation and homophobia. On April 26, 2008, she received the Vanguard Award—a media award from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—to honor her work in the entertainment industry in promoting equality for LGBT people. GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano commented, "Ms. Jackson has a tremendous following inside the LGBT community and out, and having her stand with us against the defamation that LGBT people still face in our country is extremely significant."
Ellen DeGeneres is considered to be a gay icon for coming out publicly in a time when American culture was not as accepting, facing setbacks to her career and persevering to have an extremely successful daytime talk show.
Lady Gaga, who herself is bisexual, fought as an LGBT rights activist from the beginning of her career and has a large LGBT following. She is often referred as one of the biggest contemporary gay icons and fought against LGBT-related phobias, for marriage and adoption equality, the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell law, the protection of transgender people.
Charli XCX has been seen as a more recent example of a gay icon, particularly following her 2016 Vroom Vroom EP, which found support from an LGBT audience, alongside her frequent collaborations with LGBT artists and producers. Charli XCX's popularity amongst LGBT people has led to online memes, such as a video of her holding a bottle of poppers and yelling "gay rights!", which became popular in 2019. She has described the LGBTQ community as "a core part of her fanbase and have stuck with [her] through the high's and lows".
Out described Katy Perry as a gay icon. Perry dedicated the music video for Firework to the It Gets Better Project. Perry was additionally awarded the National Equality Award by the Human Rights Campaign.
Marina Diamandis, formerly known as “Marina and the Diamonds”, and currently known as just “Marina”, garnered a loyal gay following, following her 2012 album, “Electra Heart”. The album connected with many young LGBT listeners. Her 2015 album “Froot” also received massive support from the LGBT Community. Diamandis has embraced being considered a gay icon, and has posed for gay publications such as “Attitude (magazine)” and “Gay Times”.
Since his creation, He-Man's homoeroticism, implied homosexuality, and adherence to multiple gay stereotypes has resulted in the character and show drawing a queer audience when the cartoon first aired, with the character being viewed as a gay icon.
Many celebrities have responded positively to being regarded as gay icons, several noting the loyalty of their gay fans. Eartha Kitt and Cher have credited gay fans with keeping them going at times when their careers had faltered.
Kylie Minogue has acknowledged the perception of herself as a gay icon and has performed at such events as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Asked to explain the reason for her large gay fanbase, Minogue replied, "It's always difficult for me to give the definitive answer because I don't have it. My gay audience has been with me from the beginning ... they kind of adopted me." She noted that she differed from many gay icons who were seen as tragic figures, with the comment, "I've had a lot of tragic hairdos and outfits. I think that makes up for it!"
Lady Gaga has acknowledged and credited her gay following for launching then supporting her career stating, among other examples, "When I started in the mainstream it was the gays that lifted me up", and that "because of the gay community I'm where I am today." As a way to thank her gay audience for allowing her to perform her first album in gay clubs before she was invited to perform at straight ones, she often debuted her new albums at gay clubs. Along her career, she also dedicated a MuchMusic Video Award win, as well as her Alejandro music video, to gay people, frequently praised her gay entourage for the positive impact they had on her life and often gave a place to different queer crowds in her songs, performances, music videos as well as in the visuals of her make up line. Lady Gaga is known for her fights as an LGBT activist and attended numerous LGBT events such as Prides and Stonewall day.
Madonna has acknowledged and embraced her gay following throughout her career, even making several references to the gay community in her songs or performances, and performed at several gay clubs. She has declared in interviews that some of her best friends are gay and that she adores gay people and refers to herself as "the biggest gay icon of all times." She also has been quoted in television interviews in the early 1990s as declaring the "big problem in America at the time was homophobia."
Geri Halliwell has consistently acknowledged and accepted her status as a gay icon throughout her career as both a solo artist and member of the Spice Girls, describing a "kinship" with the gay community and her love and respect for her LGBTQ fans.
In 2000, Guinness World Records listed Madonna as the most successful female recording artist of all time.