m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

A U G U S T  2 0 0 0 

Illustration by Daniel Brown

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

"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 The Wizard of Oz. 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.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

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

Illustrations by Daniel Brown.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The Queen Is Dead- 00.08 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 2; page 62-70.