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Judy Garland: the quintessential queer icon

Judy Garland is the quintessential queer icon. Vaudeville child star turned musical darling, Garland was one of Hollywood’s most important stars. With the recent release of Judy, a biopic that sees Renée Zellweger embody her excellently, as well as last year’s A Star is Born (a film that captures onscreen the tragedy of Garland’s private struggles), there has been a fresh focus on the iconic actress and performer. After all, her death 50 years ago pre-dates the careers of stars now considered legends in their own right, such as Madonna and Cher. Barry Walters, writing for The Advocate in 1998, crowned Garland, “an Elvis for homosexuals – an icon who transcends music to occupy realms of sheer mythology.” And he is certainly correct. Her cautionary tale of addiction, heartbreak and raw talent squandered is so well-versed it veers into folklore: how did she survive as long as she did, let alone flourish after a childhood of abuse and exploitation?

As a child, her appearance was under relentless scrutiny from her mother, movie executives and the media, and she was constantly on diet pills as well as “uppers and downers” to control her sleeping patterns. As she made a successful transition into becoming a major Hollywood star, her disastrous relationships and self-destructive behaviour marred her huge achievements.

Garland was found dead in Chelsea, London on 22 June 1969, after overdosing unintentionally on the drugs she had self-medicated with since childhood. Her death coincided remarkably with the Stonewall riots – gay folklore suggests that it was Judy’s passing that was the last straw, that trans women and drag queens finally snapped due to constant police intervention, and started to riot. But what is it about Judy that continues to engage gay audiences?

Asking a prospective partner if he were a ‘Friend of Dorothy’ has long been a code phrase for gay men that remains to this day. And even the term, “your good Judy” means your dearest darling gay pal. One could surmise that gay people do tend to gravitate towards figures who have suffered in some way: at the risk of overgeneralising, as a marginalised group, there are many parallels to be made with a person who seems to have suffered consistently her whole life, all in the pursuit of self-fulfilment. There are also so many elements of Judy that embody the camp sensibility and aesthetic that appeal to some gay men (of course, there isn’t one uniform gay archetype), and it is this sense of frivolity that serves as a tonic for the challenges being LGBT+ can present. Perhaps figures like Garland help us navigate our own paths. In this most recent adaptation, Judy befriends two gay men who are obsessive fans and who treat her to dinner. What is revealed is the political and criminal ramifications of being gay in the 60s, and how these men had served time in prison for their relationship. It is a startling reminder of the challenges our community has faced historically, and how public figures like Judy Garland, in their own way, serve as a beacon of hope through
adversity. She was a survivor, and perhaps we could be, too.

And she gave birth to Liza Minnelli, which speaks for itself.

I think it’s important, however, to remember the darker side to the gays’ adoration of a diva: in the film, we see Judy onstage, heckled by her fans for being drunk and underperforming. Often stars – usually female – struggle to meet the expectations their devoted fans place on them, which can lead to resentment. Look at the likes of Katy Perry, once a standard “gay icon” who has become something of a punching bag for her own fans online. Or even Britney, who at once has the gays onside, but also deals with seeing her 2007 self constantly derided and translated into costumes fit for Halloween. Perhaps there is a double standard for gay icons like Judy: we love them for their imperfection, yet admonish them when they fail to meet our standards.

Overall, it is heartening to see Judy Garland re-emerge in public consciousness, especially for those unfamiliar with Hollywood’s biggest, oft- overlooked star. As she takes to the stage to sing, “Over the Rainbow” at the end of Judy, older and tired, you are reminded that she is the epitome of optimism, even in the face of real personal struggle. And it always helps to have your good Judy by your side.

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