Many of us credit a powerful female celeb with giving us the courage to bust out of the closet.
I knew there was something different about me when I first heard Cher’s “Believe.” Her robot voice belted over the radio while I was on my way to my first grade class, and the sheer strength of her vocals shook my organs. I couldn’t tell if the person singing was a man or a woman, where they came from, or what, exactly, they were singing about. All I knew was that the music I was hearing made me feel free.
When I learned who Cher was years later, I became obsessed with both her look and her discography. Whenever I was sad, I played “Believe” on my iPod nano and put feathers in my hair to recreate the music video (with the door locked, obviously). My love for Cher transcended fandom — I was a stan, long before the internet coined the term.
Since then, I’ve developed intimate (if entirely unreciprocated) relationships with many more famous women: Selena Quintanilla, Nicki Minaj, and Carly Rae Jepsen are just a few. Once I moved to New York and met more queer people, I quickly realized that my experience wasn’t unique; most of my gay friends had also grown up worshipping famous women. My friend Ashton is obsessed with Mariah Carey, Jonathan has been to at least ten Christina Aguilera concerts, and Erwin goes to every Taylor Swift-themed party he can find. A viral tweet by comedian Caleb Hearon said it best: “when gay boys turn 13 years old the universe assigns them one woman working in entertainment. from that point forward their purpose on earth becomes supporting this woman so hard that the force of their love for her could literally kill them.”
But why? Why are so many of us obsessed with women in entertainment — and, more importantly, does this obsession reek of mommy issues, or is there a deeper reason we gravitate toward them?
If there is one characteristic shared by the powerful women that gay men love, it’s that they all incorporate bold — borderline theatrical — clothes and performances into their personas. Think: icons like Madonna or Lady Gaga, who get away with behaving in ways that would be deemed completely socially unacceptable in any other context. But for the LGBTQ+ community, that boldness carried a meaningful connection. “I suspect that celebrity culture has become so important to many queer folx because theater has long been a home for the ‘others’ in our culture,’” Ashera DeRosa, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works with LGBTQ+ clients, tells me.
For many gay men, that otherness is often tied to our expressions of femininity, a trait that’s frequently punished by our peers and family whenever we dare to express it. The female icons we love tend to be unapologetically feminine, while also making it very clear that doing so doesn’t make you weak — it actually makes you powerful as fuck. “The men can do anything and they will be praised, but I think of people like Lil’ Kim and Nicki [Minaj] as women who build something authentic for themselves in a male dominated world,” Jonathan, a 21-year-old artist from Brooklyn who’s obsessed with female emcees, tells me. For example, there’s the power of Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday era, during which she juxtaposed her bubble gum pink aesthetic with her debut album’s earth-rattling beats. “In hip-hop, men always made women an accessory, but [these artists] came and turned that around,” Jonathan says.
Most gay men are familiar with the feeling of being the butt of everyone’s joke and the feeling that we have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously — and most of us credit a powerful woman in entertainment with giving us the courage to bust out of the closet. These women remind us of a time when we were just starting to embrace our sexualities and accept who we were, which is why our loyalty toward them is unwavering. For many gay men in my generation, that person was Lady Gaga. “The Fame Monster came out during my sexual awakening, and her music helped me feel and express things I didn’t know I felt,” DeiVonte Freeman-Jackson, a 24-year-old publicist from North Carolina, tells me. “‘Born This Way’ was one of those songs that, when I heard it I was like, ‘I am okay with who I am.’”
When gay men couldn’t express ourselves the way we wanted, we sent these women out as our stand-ins, and they, in turn, paid homage to queer people who didn’t have the privilege of such visibility.
It’s easy to forget that many gay men were involved in curating those celebrities’ aesthetics, too; it’s a symbiotic relationship. Lady Gaga, for example, was heavily influenced by downtown Manhattan’s queer club kids. During times when gay men couldn’t express ourselves the way we wanted, we sent these women out as our stand-ins, and they, in turn, paid homage to queer people who didn’t have the privilege of such visibility.
In my mind, no one exemplifies this obsession more intensely than my friend Ashton Brooks, a 32-year-old producer who lives in Denver. I recently visited his apartment, where his home office is decorated with three giant pictures of Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and, of course, Mariah Carey.
Brooks is the type of person who constantly tweets at Mariah, hoping she’ll respond (she has). I’ve been to two Mariah Carey concerts with him, and when her memoir came out, I couldn’t stand hanging out with him because he wouldn’t put that damn book down. But Brooks, whose dad is a pastor in Texas, has a strained relationship with his family in part because of his queerness. Although I often poke fun at his Mariah obsession, talking to him about it recently made me realize that his reasons for liking Mariah are deeper than I had initially thought: Her music brings him back to a time before he came out as queer, when his home was a refuge. “I knew Christmas was starting when my mom played Mariah’s album and that voice became the soundtrack of the holiday season,” Brooks tells me, adding that his mom used to sing to him in the car and taught him that Mariah’s voice was the epitome of excellence. “I was surrounded by Black women growing up, and I saw the challenges they went through. Whitney, Aretha, and Mariah all remind me of that.”
Whether it’s because of their bold embrace of femininity, their support for the queer community, or the memories they evoke, powerful women in entertainment will always be the backbone of the gay community. They make us cry and laugh — but most importantly, they remind us that life is too damn short to not be extra AF.