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.

Such events give succor to the few who brave on as Judy queens today. Yet even those who admit to admiring Garland temper their enthusiasm. The film director John Waters recently told me that he thinks the gay-Garland connection is "an embarrassing topic." (To put Waters's embarrassment in perspective: he makes movies whose characters have included a sphincter that sings.) "I mean, I do love her," he said, "but if a reporter were coming to my home, I wouldn't have Judy Garland playing. They'd think maybe upstairs I had a room devoted to her." Waters also said, "A gay man loving Judy could almost be like a black person watching a minstrel show" -- a joke that suggests the degree of hostility, anger, and fear with which many gay men view this stereotype.

Presumably, hard-core gay Garland fans -- including men who make a living as experts on her career -- would be best qualified to talk about the connection between their love for her and their love for men. But they avoid the topic. "Judy sang for humanity," one asserts. Another says, "I've talked to gay men who are crazy about Judy, but I've also talked to a lot who are not." A third writes, "I feel the main reason that gay men love Judy Garland is for the same reason that straight men love her (indeed, why ANY human being would love her), because she is simply the most talented artist the world has ever known, and possibly ever will know." Given the ridicule that Judy queens have suffered over the years, a certain amount of defensiveness is to be expected. Yet the combined force of all these strained evasions renders one question about gay men who love Garland more compelling than the rest: Why are they afraid?

Lonelier and Tougher

GARLAND embodied many of the paradoxical emotional states that gay men commonly experience while coming out: vulnerability and strength, sincerity and duplicity, self-consciousness and abandon, adolescence and maturity. The role of Dorothy alone could have secured her place in gay mythology -- the lonely, misunderstood small-town kid who has a great adventure in a wild new world where fabulous friends appear to help her on her way, and where no sorrow can overwhelm her. For many gay men, Garland was also a mother figure. The playwright Charles Busch recalls his boyhood, saying, "I remember watching her with her children on television -- she was presented as a kind of Auntie Mame at that point -- and I remember thinking, wouldn't it be great to have a mom like that. She was so affectionate and fun, and she sang." Most crucially, and most simply, Garland recognized our existence. Gay men knew that she knew they loved her. In her last movie, I Could Go On Singing (1963), she even gave homosexuals in the audience a wink. "I've already drunk enough coffee to float Fire Island," she says in a throwaway line near the end of the film. To gay men in that closeted time the flicker of recognition must have seemed like a bolt of lightning.

Excavating the gay-Garland connection should begin, however, with considering how Garland stands out from other movie divas who have been glorified in gay culture. Mae West, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford were self-sufficient and strong, on and off the screen; they moved with easy invincibility both inside and outside the bedroom. Although Garland is often counted among these women, she does not quite fit. Their strength was thoroughly self-assertive; hers was self-effacing. Beginning as the supportive, long-suffering, asexual foil for Mickey Rooney's adolescent adventures, she grew into a concert performer whose every appearance cried out, as the film director Stanley Kramer observed, "Here is my heart, break it."

To be sure, the woman did not know when to stop. Garland's concert performances were so intimate and unguarded that listeners believed she was singing for them individually. Jerry Lewis is quoted in (1974), by Anne Edwards, as having said, "People of all kinds, with worries and problems and heartaches, go to see her; and they identify with her.... The stout women in the audience identify with her, and the people who remember their own unhappy childhoods identify with her. All the people whose insides have been torn out by misery identify with her, and she is singing for all of them. In a way, she's singing with a hundred voices."

The most famous of Garland's signature songs either expose her loneliness and vulnerability ("The Man That Got Away," "Over the Rainbow") or trumpet a delirious confidence in love ("The Trolley Song," "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart"). Yet even the love songs are fraught with Garland's sexless self-effacement: they describe a feverish experience of loving in which reciprocity is almost beside the point. (Compare this with the chutzpah of Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, singers who have been crowned Garland's heirs; they carry themselves as if the whole world were created to provide wind beneath their wings.)

The high points of Garland's concerts coupled a song of the first kind with one of the second, for a one-two punch that felt listeners' pain and then carried them beyond it. For example, imagine yourself a gay man at her 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, your heart breaking as she sings "The Man That Got Away," whose lament for unrequited love perfectly describes your fear of growing old alone, because your relationships are so often short-lived, because you cannot live your love in public: "The road gets rougher / It's lonelier and tougher / With hope you burn up / Tomorrow he might turn up." Then, your eyes still stinging with tears, you watch her tiny frame fill with preternatural confidence. She reaches out to pick you up and set you down in the promised land, a place where you will never be lonely again. "San Francisco" begins in a mood so light and silly that the audience breaks into laughter at the very first phrase. Garland vamps through the first chorus, and then her pace slows, her intonation broadens, and you fly: "Saaaan Fraaan-cisco / When I arrive, I really come alive / And you will laugh to see me / Perpendicular, hangin' on a cable car."

You might think she knows your heart. You might even think she loves you.


Illustration by Daniel Brown
"Truly, Truly Happy"

GARLAND'S biographies attest that a particular connection with gay men was an abiding fact of her life. Her father, Frank Gumm, whom she adored, and Roger Edens, her mentor at M-G-M, who became a kind of surrogate father to her, were predominantly homosexual. It's unclear whether she was aware of her father's orientation.

It's also unclear how Garland felt about her gay following. She sometimes seemed to relish it, once bragging, "When I die I have visions of fags singing 'Over the Rainbow' and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half mast." (According to the film historian Vito Russo, houses on Fire Island were draped in black on that day.) Unfortunately, Garland also had a habit of falling in love with gay men, including two of her husbands, Vincente Minnelli and Mark Herron. Get Happy, Gerald Clarke's new biography, reveals that Herron, during his marriage to Garland, had an affair with Peter Allen, who at the time was married to Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli.

In her last years Garland was surrounded by a cadre of gay men who blurred the line between fandom and friendship. Lorna Luft has written that her mother's relationships with these men would descend into terrible confusion when Garland began falling in love with them: "I remember all too clearly the screaming accusations that filled our house in the middle of the night when she encountered one of her lovers' 'indiscretions.' I didn't hear the word 'fag' from the kids at school. I heard it from my mother."

Such details suggest that for the most devoted Judy queens, believing in the goddess must on some level have been a hard faith to keep. Sure, she was all theirs at the end -- David Shipman's biography notes discreetly that Garland attended many parties where "she was the only woman present," and Gerald Clarke adds that when she got really desperate for money, she sometimes sang in gay piano bars. But the piano bars paid her $100 a night, and she probably spent that on drugs. The seediest stories about the gay-Garland connection make it sound like the kind of arrangement that people get stuck with when they think that getting by is the best they can hope for. Still, Garland's wild ambivalence toward gay men was more gracious than her treatment of most people, including herself. And masochistic pleasure in the idol's defilement was probably only a minor aspect of Judy-love.

The most powerful of Garland's emotional conflicts, and the one that I believe best explains her particular appeal to gay men, was her inner struggle between sincerity and duplicity. Garland's stage fright was legendary, and it was rooted in her inability to believe in her talent. (At the wrap party for her last M-G-M production, she confided in one of the film's music directors, "I'm a fat slob! I'm so ugly and untalented. They're going to find me out!") Nevertheless, she said that the only times she was "truly, truly happy" were when she was performing.

Her mortal fear of duplicity fueled the creation of a character whose appeal was the soul of sincerity. This did not quell her anxiety. The more fully invested Garland became in her stage persona, the more intense her love for her audience grew; because she valued this connection above all others, the role she played eventually devoured her life. Gerald Clarke creates a precise and chilling picture of the way in which Garland fed her audiences her soul. A visitor to her dressing room during her final singing engagement in London saw her listening to a recording of the performance she had just given. Clarke describes the scene: "'Oooh!' she cried when she heard the first burst of applause. Then, leaning into her makeup mirror, she kissed her own reflection, 'You're a star!' she exclaimed. 'You're a star! You're a star!'"

Yet Garland's role-playing was not merely self-destructive. It also allowed her to reveal something true about herself. To sing the song that was most completely her own, Garland often donned drag -- an androgynous hobo outfit that she referred to as her "Little Tramp" costume. Thus attired, she ended hundreds of concerts sitting on the edge of the stage, a spotlight shining on her face, singing "Over the Rainbow." There is one surviving film of her performing the song this way -- one long extreme closeup, in which the coal smudges on her chin and cheeks draw attention to the black pools of her eyes, focused on infinity. In her short black wig with messy bangs, she looks like a little boy who has been playing in the dirt on a windy day. Sometimes on the rests between notes her lips shape the coming lyric, as if the words were fighting their way out of her. At one moment she smiles as if she sees something so beautiful that she cannot contain her delight; at the next she shakes with an innocent anger, as if she knows that her longing will never lead to the freedom she imagines with such devastating clarity.

Gay men know about role-playing. Most of us become adept at artifice early on. We learn, often before we know that we are learning, how to hide many of our deepest desires, even from ourselves. Coming out almost always sparks an inner struggle between sincerity and duplicity -- a fight to find and claim whatever is real inside us. So there is a strange comfort in seeing Garland trapped in a terror that we know, wondering if she is really Judy Garland or if her whole self is a sham. For the gay men who believed in her, who believed despite her failures that her sincerity and her joy were real, this act of faith cannot have been unrelated to the project of believing in themselves -- even if the selves they believed in were selves they had to make up.

Mainly for Yourself

COMING out offers every gay man the chance to make his life new. Before it is a declaration of desire for sex, coming out is a decision to accept one's desires and a commitment to figuring out how best to live accordingly. Because one can bear only so much freedom, however, many men have opted to play one of the roles that gay culture has concocted for us -- from the Judy queen to the butch clone to the Abercrombie & Fitch jock. None of these roles is exactly congruent with anyone's true self; each is merely a vehicle for expressing powerful and contradictory feelings about what it means to be gay.

For a lurid show of such feelings, look back at that relic from the last days of Garland's reign, The Boys in the Band. The setting is a queen's birthday party; in the climactic scene the party's host, Michael, dares each guest to reveal the greatest love of his life. This is in part a ruse to force a purportedly straight man who has shown up unexpectedly to define his ambiguous sexual identity. In the end Michael's preoccupation with questions of identity destroys his ability to engage his friend's actual personality -- a failure to love that, the play suggests, stems from Michael's self-hatred.

The allusion made in the play's title relates directly to gay role-playing. About halfway through A Star Is Born, Garland, playing an unknown singer for whom James Mason has arranged a Hollywood screen test, loses her confidence. On the morning of her screen test the studio wardrobe department convinces Garland that her look is all wrong, that she must be a different kind of woman to be acceptable in the movies. Mason, who discovered Garland singing in the wee hours in an empty jazz club with the chairs turned up on the tables, and spied in her a native talent more powerful than any he had ever seen before, snaps her back to her natural self before she goes in front of the cameras: "It's the Downbeat Club at three o'clock in the morning," he says, "and you're singing for yourself and for the boys in the band -- mainly for yourself."

In A Star Is Born, the boys in the band are the people with whom you are your truest self -- the ones who know you and bring out great things in you. But the boys in Crowley's band are not supportive, trusted insiders; they are a community of individuals whose solitude is never breached. They are, in the words of another Garland standard, "alone together." Thus the play's title is a poor description of its characters' relationships with one another. "The boys in the band" works better as a description of the relationship between the play's characters and the gay men in its audience. It challenges us to find some way of understanding them as our people, at the same time that it challenges us to not turn out the same. Above all, the title orders us, as individuals, to drop the pretense, to remember who we are.

Judy Garland began losing her power over gay men because we got that message and started becoming more integrated characters than the screaming queens of yore. We no longer need a surrogate to embody the conflicts that so many of us experience, because we now have more and better resources for sorting them out for ourselves. Young gay men have ditched diva worship and chosen the role of the regular guy as a gesture of healthy adolescent rebellion, a way of taking full advantage of what's distinctive about coming out now: coming out is increasingly viewed, and experienced, as a gesture of strength that makes one more of a man, not less.

All that is true, but so is this: the fetish of the normal guy is also a function of fear. Previous generations of gay men faced the risk of social exile when they came out. My generation worried less about being outcast and more about being dead.

So we play strong, and we banish the Judy queens because they are emblems of weakness. In the past, when gay culture was a community of outcasts, it was a community where weakness could be forgiven and enjoyed. Now it is a community of survivors, in which we are likely to deny or despise all signs of weakness in our numbers.

Awkward Intensities

I SAW Liza Minnelli's one-woman show, Minnelli on Minnelli, at New York's Palace Theatre last December. The first act was a raw spectacle of fear and courage. At times Minnelli literally trembled with fright. Her manner was tentative and her intonation sloppy, and her six hunky chorus boys gamely saw her through. Then, every once in a while, from God knows where, she would pull out the power of Sally Bowles, her role in Cabaret. The contrast was exhausting to watch. During intermission, at the mezzanine bar, I said hello to a young man in a muscle-hugging, sky-blue spandex shirt, whom I recognized from Boston. "What do you think of Liza?" I asked.

"I don't care about her," he said without a trace of irony. "But I love those guys."

His response both horrified and relieved me -- horrified because it neatly summarized the ruthless dimension of the cultural shift I've been describing, and relieved because Minnelli's half-crippled stage presence made me so uncomfortable that I, too, had been focused on a hairy-chested chorus boy for much of the evening.

After Minnelli's show I got into a cab that might as well have been a time machine, and went to see the female impersonator Tommy Femia do his Judy Garland act at the midtown drag club Don't Tell Mama. "Are the children here tonight?" he called out, forlorn. "Lorna ... ? Liza ... ? Hmm ... Well. You're all my babies! Especially in this neck of the woods."

The mostly gay audience laughed pitilessly at the first, needy pleas, which played on Garland's emotional failings and highlighted the loneliness that is so much a part of her popular image -- and was once so much a part of our own. Our meanness and judgment made room for a rush of sympathy and self-deprecation when she suddenly, comically claimed us -- "You're all my babies."

This exchange is a perfect example of the purifying power of camp. Susan Sontag has observed, "Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of 'character.'" Moreover, "what it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures." In this respect the Judy queens were on to something important. Finding the success in passionate emotional failure was their forte. And the role they played, like most of the roles gay men have played, was an earnest but imperfect effort to heal the anger and fear that coming out forced on them.

Since the 1960s the Judy-queen stereotype has helped to shape popular notions in this country of what it is to be gay. Every man who has come out since then has had to come to terms with that and other stereotypes, in a process that combines accepting and resisting these notions with innumerable strategies, from lifting weights to watching Now straight people depend less on such stereotypes for understanding gay men, and we depend less on them for defining ourselves. As a result, the average guy with the better-than-average body is growing confident and comfortable enough with his love for men that he can move easily between the Kansas that he comes from and the Oz that he makes up. It is increasingly true that he can go anywhere, including home, in full possession of his integrity as a gay man.

If his strength is more than cosmetic, however, he will not despise or deny the Judy queens; he will give them at least as much grace as the world now gives him. Then he will really be out of the woods. The distinction between Kansas and Oz will not disappear, but something much better will happen: the whole world will turn Technicolor.


Michael Joseph Gross lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is writing a book about celebrity and the politics of identity.


Illustrations by Daniel Brown.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The Queen Is Dead- 00.08 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 2; page 62-70.

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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