Rainbows and riots: Old Hollywood’s LGBT icons

The Golden Age of Hollywood is often perceived as a time of close-mindedness. Racial segregation was in affect in America until 1964, homosexuality was only declassified as an illness in 1973 and only became legal in 2003. Any representation of LGBT characters on screen throughout the first half of the 20th century was often negative, with them being depicted as sadists, psychopaths, anti-social loners or simply as comic relief, not to be taken seriously as ‘real’ characters. White, straight, cisgender characters were the norm – and sadly still dominate the screen even today. However, the lack of understanding depicted onscreen did not necessarily reflect the views of Hollywood’s biggest names off screen.

Perhaps the greatest LGBT icon of Old Hollywood was Judy Garland, the girl who sang of rainbows and was behind the slang term ‘friends of Dorothy’ to identify gay men. Judy Garland’s connection with the LGBT community can be found through her film roles, her real life struggles and ultimately her death.

Garland’s most famous role is that of Dorothy Gale in the seminal film The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), and it is this film that first led to her being an icon for the LGBT community. Dorothy’s journey from dreary black and white Kansas to the multi coloured world of Oz can be said to mirror the life to which many gay Americans aspired. Oz’s colourful characters appear to not be limited by gender norms, with the male characters wearing skirts and the Cowardly Lion not being afraid to wear bows in his hair, a symbol typically associated with femininity. The Lion continues to emit femininity through his self-confessed identity as a “cissy”, and Dorothy’s acceptance of him as her friend can be said to represent the acceptance of a gay man into society without question. Dorothy’s wish to be “somewhere over the rainbow” and her subsequent adventure into Oz reflects the wish of LGBT persons to escape their close-minded hometowns and find freedom of expression in the larger cities in which they would be welcomed no matter how different they are. The homosexual connotations found throughout The Wizard of Oz cemented both the film and its leading lady as gay icons.

Judy Garland

Judy Garland, 1961 (photographed by Richard Avedon)

Outside of her film roles, Garland herself became a symbol for the struggles and triumphs of the LGBT community. Unfortunately, the woman who sang of rainbows and blue birds lived a reality far from such happy imagery, and it was in Garland’s personal struggles that many gay audience members saw themselves. Having struggled with mental health issues throughout her life and yet still continuing to perform, Judy presented a resilience that the LGBT community hoped to mimic. Judy was consistently beaten down by life, having had to live up to the expectations of her parents, movie studios and her husbands for years, all of which created insecurities surrounding her image, talent and self worth; her ability to not only survive through this but to flourish in her performances showed incredible strength. She suffered, but did so beautifully, creating the idea that glamour can come from pain, something to which gay men aspired. It was this strength that attracted her audience of “boys in the tight trousers” as Time Magazine put it, an audience that saw their struggles reflected in Judy’s and hoped to find solace in her resilience. This connection was later acknowledged by Garland herself, who recognised that she had been brutally treated by the press throughout her career and would “be damned if I’ll have my audience mistreated” – it must be remembered that this was during a time when homosexuals were still viewed as being ‘ill’ or degenerate, therefore Judy’s defense of them was not only accepting but also controversial.

Judy Garland’s influence over the LGBT community continued even after her death. Much has been said about the connection between Judy’s funeral on the 27th June 1969 and the Stonewall Riots which began the next day, however there is little to no evidence that there is a true link between the two events. The Stonewall Riots were undoubtedly the major turning point for the gay liberation movement of the 20th century, therefore it is easy to find a connection between the three days of protests and the death of such a major gay icon, but it is most likely that the Stonewall Riots would have occurred without the death of Garland to prompt them. A key member of the Stonewall Riots, Sylvia Rivera, stated that there were many patrons at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the 27th who had come to the bar in order to drink and mourn Garland’s death, and that it was entirely possible that “Garland’s death just really helped us really hit the fan”. While the overwrought emotions prompted by Garland’s funeral could most definitely have added to the release of tension that occurred that night, but it must be acknowledged that there are a number of other factors that influenced the Stonewall Riots.

The Stonewall riots: a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village, N.Y.C. They are cited as the first instance in American history when people in the homosexual community fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities, and they have become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the US & globally.

Protesters at the Stonewall Riots, 1969 (photographed by Leonard Fink)

LGBT icons can be found even in the earliest days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Marlene Dietrich played a crucial role in pushing gender norms as early as the 1920’s. Throughout her life, Dietrich projected the concept of the dual identity; she held both German and American citizenships, she infamously dressed in masculine suits and she was a known bisexual, often frequenting the gay balls of 1920’s Paris. The first Hollywood actress to wear trousers publicly (a shocking move pre WW2!), Dietrich’s style was groundbreaking in pushing gender norms in early 20th century popular culture;

“her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men”.

Though not the only bisexual actor of Old Hollywood (Greta Garbo, Josephine Baker and Marlon Brando, to name a few), Dietrich was one of the few who did not try to hide it away – most other accounts of homosexuality or bisexuality from the era of Old Hollywood came after the star’s death, but stories of Dierich’s affairs with both men and women were circling throughout her 60 year career.

Marilyn Monroe was another star of Old Hollywood who was unafraid to discuss homosexuality and other ‘taboo’ subjects, contributing to the normalization of LGBT persons in the mainstream. When talking about her The Misfits (John Huston, 1961) co-star Mongomery Clift, Marilyn said

“People who aren’t fit to open the door for him sneer at his homosexuality. What do they know about it? Labels – people love putting labels on each other. Then they feel safe. People tried making me into a lesbian. I laughed. No sex is wrong if there’s love in it”.  

Though it cannot be denied that there was a much more open discourse concerning homosexuality and LGBT persons in Old Hollywood than most people may think, the gay rights movement can in no way be attributed to these stars of the silver screen. While it’s important that we acknowledge how these Old Hollywood stars are seen as gay icons and used their power to recognise the value of LGBT persons, it is the people who tirelessly campaigned, protested, rioted and even died in order for equality to be recognised to the extent it is today.


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