The Queen Is Dead

Once a gay icon, Judy Garland has become an embarrassment
Daniel Brown

ONE bright day last summer on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Afrodite, a bald black drag queen with a silver stud in one nostril and big, muscular hairless legs, strode toward me, her eyes locked on the dust jacket of the book I was carrying: Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend (1992), by David Shipman. "Judy Garland?" She sniffed imperiously. "You big queen."


No one had ever called me a big queen before, and to my surprise, I kind of liked it. Such sissifying slaps carry historical punch for a gay man today. They mark him with the effeminacy that in previous generations was integral to the popular image of gay men -- witty, frowsy, fussy old queens who memorized every minute of All About Eve and poured their hearts into antiques and opera and, perhaps most damnably of all, Judy Garland.

Blatant effeminacy last seems to have been widely acceptable in (white, urban, middle-class) gay culture in the late 1960s, a time memorialized in Mart Crowley's 1968 play which depicted the quip-lashed anguish and emotionally destructive conditions of life in the closet with unprecedented candor. Judy Garland's status as a mascot for that generation of gay men is signaled early on in the dialogue of Crowley's play ("What's more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?" "A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation"), and the play's title is lifted from the dialogue of Garland's 1954 film

Some observers of gay life in the sixties go so far as to argue that Garland's death sparked the modern gay-rights movement; the Stonewall riots occurred in Manhattan's West Village just hours after her funeral, in New York in June of 1969. It's a provocative coincidence, but most scholars deny any causal relationship between the events. (Garland did have a loyal following among patrons of the Stonewall Inn. As Charles Kaiser explains in [1997], the bar had no liquor license; it passed itself off as a bottle club, requiring all its so-called members to sign in at the door. Many used pseudonyms, of which "Judy Garland" was among the most popular.)

After Stonewall, gay stereotypes got butch: out went the queens and in came the clones -- hypermasculine, moustachioed men whose big muscles, Levis, and work boots became premium symbols of gay identity. In the 1980s and early 1990s the AIDS epidemic again made vulnerability and other traditionally feminine traits more acceptable in gay culture; but when the crisis abated, the testosterone flowed again. Perhaps the most theatrical demonstration of this resurgent masculinity is the ascendance of circuit parties -- bacchic all-night revels rippling wall-to-wall with world-class physiques.

Coming out in the past ten to fifteen years has been considerably eased by the mainstream culture's speedy incorporation of gay life (Will and Grace, Andrew Sullivan, Vermont). As a result, gay men in this generation are mostly indifferent to the faux tragedy and flamboyant exoticism of camp, and to old-time gay icons like Judy Garland. We have fetishized a flamboyant normalcy, exemplified by the frat-boy chic of Bruce Weber's slyly homoerotic ad campaigns for Abercrombie & Fitch. Young gay men today just want to be regular guys -- with better-than-average bodies.

It's easy to see why gay men might want to forget queeny stereotypes, particularly the stereotype of the Judy queen. In the late 1960s, when the mainstream media rarely acknowledged the existence of homosexuality, articles about Judy Garland sometimes functioned as vehicles for the aggressive derision of gay men. Time, in its August 18, 1967, review of Garland's final engagement at New York's Palace Theatre, observed, "A disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual. The boys in the tight trousers roll their eyes, tear at their hair and practically levitate from their seats, particularly when Judy sings ['Over the Rainbow']." In the same article Time quoted psychiatrists' interpretations of the gay-Garland connection. One offered that "Judy was beaten up by life, embattled and ultimately had to become more masculine. She has the power that homosexuals would like to have, and they attempt to attain it by idolizing her."

William Goldman described the final night of that Palace run in Esquire. He had seen "a young boy, maybe twenty-one, maybe less ... staring up at her and wringing his hands. He cannot and will not stop with his hands, even though his constant wringing pressure has forced the skin to burst. He holds a handkerchief as he continues to stare up at her and wring his hands and bleed." Goldman also gave readers some yuks by eavesdropping on straight men in the audience that night: "Tonight," says one married man to another, "no one goes to the men's room."

Perhaps the darkest dig at the gay-Garland connection came from Mel Torme, in his 1970 memoir about working on The Judy Garland Show for CBS. Torme, who observed that it was "a rule, not an exception," that studio audiences for the show were "heavily populated" with "Odd Fellows," also repeated the remark of an unidentified "someone" who exclaimed, "Judy? Yeah, she's the Queen of the Fags!"

This is ugly stuff, and yet most gay writers have been equally harsh in their treatment of the subject. Gay love for Judy Garland is most often explained by slinging around stereotypes about the masochism of diva worship -- an approach exemplified by Daniel Harris in (1997). Harris argues that gay men's worship of divas, of which Garland is his primary example, is a pathology issuing from "the almost universal homosexual experience of ostracism and insecurity," which ultimately leads to "the aestheticism of maladjustment, the gay man's exploitation of cinematic visions of Hollywood grandeur to elevate himself above his antagonistic surroundings." Harris continues,

The answer to the proverbial question "why did gay men like Judy Garland so much?" is that they liked, not her, so much as her audience, the hordes of other gay men who gathered in her name to hear her poignant renditions of old torch songs that reduced sniffling queens to floods of self-pitying tears.

The specter of these "sniffling queens" wallowing in the campy show of Garland's melodramatic, drug-dazed last years has relegated her to a marginal place in gay culture today. Most surviving tributes are either kitschy (she occasionally pops up on greeting cards and T-shirts, and ad campaigns for gay travel agencies sometimes recycle the ruby-slippers motif in their promotional materials) or coarse ("Judy Garland Park," officially named Schuylkill Park, is a well-known outdoor cruising area in Philadelphia; a "Judy Garland Memorial Forest" of similar repute stands on Fire Island).

Strained Evasions

GARLAND'S popularity in the culture at large is perpetually nourished by a stream of high-end products that preserve or pay homage to her work: more than half the episodes of Garland's television variety show were recently issued on DVD. An uncut recording of the famous Carnegie Hall concert on April 23, 1961, including stage patter and applause never previously released, was issued this spring. A new biography, Gerald Clarke's was published this past March. A television movie based on Lorna Luft's 1998 memoir of growing up as Garland's daughter, will be broadcast by ABC next season, with Judy Davis starring as Garland. And Garland's third and fourth husbands, Sid Luft and Mark Herron, are rumored to be at work on their own books about her.

Presented by

Michael Joseph Gross lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He has written about religion and popular culture for The Nation and Salon.

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