By Joshua Morrison
Other Side Drive Segment Producer
There isn’t just one answer to this question, and the answer you get depends on who you ask. Some would tell you that a diva is an incredible opera singer. For our purposes, however, “diva” is a pretty gay term. We’re concerned with divas as gay icons and what they mean to swarms of gay men.
In order to truly learn a curriculum of divas it’s important to understand a bit about the special relationship between gay men and the women they love. Of course, volumes could, and have, been written about this fascinating topic. I certainly can’t provide any definitive answers or statements on the topic, but I hope to introduce at least some of you to the conversation.
The first thing I’d like to highlight is that the divas anointed by gay men are almost always women. This is, to some, a curious phenomenon and not everybody agrees on why it happens.
Psychotherapist Dr. Joe Kort holds that many gay men flee into worlds of femininity as a result of the discomfort they feel in the masculine spheres in which they are pushed to exist. New York artist and writer J. W. Harvey suggests that the adoration comes from gay men’s ability to find kindred spirits in those women who use their art and status to interrogate and protest the policing of their sexual identities by a straight, masculine culture. An interesting extension of this idea can be found in the words of Washington State professor David Leonard who suggests that gay men take to these idols because they don’t fit into gender or sexual norms and yet they’ve still found a way to enter the cultural consciousness on their own terms.
Each of these notions rings at least partially true to me, but whatever the case may be it is clear that gay men have a unique appreciation for divas.
Many divas are tragic heroines, surviving in a world stacked against them, overcoming insurmountable obstacles on the strength of some combination of talent and determination…but not without some wear and tear. Judy Garland, who has been called the Elvis of gay icons, is a perfect example.
Some, Madonna for instance, become gay icons on the strength of their outsized persona, performances, and politics.
And of course, none of these categories are mutually exclusive. Britney Spears is a highly contemporary example of a woman who has scaled the heights of fame and performance, fallen apart, and pieced herself back together.
Diva worship is an important part of gay cultural heritage. And before signing off I have a few notes on the act of diva worship. The first is that diva worship is often as theatrical and exaggerated as the divas themselves. It’s all camp, in the way that it was defined by Richard Dyer: “a characteristically gay way of handling the values, images and products of the dominant culture through irony, exaggeration, trivialisation, theatricalisation and an ambivalent making fun of and out of the serious and respectable.” Diva worship, and camp in general, is BIG. Divas don’t succeed they SLAY, they are not talented they are QUEENS, and they do not bring fulfillment, they GIVE LIFE.
These unabashedly feminine, larger than life sensibilities that define all that we have discussed thus far are perhaps falling out of vogue among queer communities. I saw a meme recently that read “I’m gay, but I’m not a freaking cliché. I’m not a shopaholic, I’m not always clubbing. I don’t like fashion.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with being a gay man who fits that profile. However, there seems to be an eagerness to downplay the flamboyancy of gayness in the air lately, and it is important to remember that this incarnation of gayness is rich in cultural heritage. When culture demanded that gayness be hidden from sight it was the flamboyant gays who could not hide and who paved the roads to acceptance. A Curriculum of Divas seeks to honor these cultural sensibilities and those who have come before.
And that concludes the first installment of “A Curriculum of Divas!” If you’d like to tell me what diva means to you, who your favorite divas are, who you’d like to hear discussed on the show, or if you’d just like to have a conversation about divas I’d love to hear from you, and maybe interview you for a future segment! Reach out to me on twitter at JoshNotJim and we’ll talk!