Icon. We throw the word around, but do we really know what it means? It found its way into the English language from the original Greek word used for likeness or image (eikṓn). In other words, icons are reflections of what a given group of people hold to be sacred. Given the recent passage of Joan Rivers, and the bewailment of her death as the loss of a great gay icon, I think it’s time to have a frank discussion of just what it is we DO hold sacred in the gay community…and why. We do not ask ourselves this question often enough.
Some have expressed bewilderment as to why Joan Rivers even attained the status of “icon” in the gay community in the first place. To understand this, you must first understand, psychologically speaking, some of the purpose(s) humor serves. Both Plato and Aristotle (yes, they did agree on some things) say that we laugh at the wretched, the fat, the miserable and poor because it asserts our own superiority. Sound familiar? Thought so. Going further, psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant categorized humor as a specialized defense mechanism; in other words, some things are too painful to confront or too terrible to talk about so we just deflect against them.
But let us ask ourselves: just what is it that we’re defending against?
Alan Downs Ph.D., author of The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, has diagnosed with surgical precision the origin of this cancerous condition in the gay community and largely attributes it to early childhood experiences of overwhelming shame. As a natural counterpoint to this toxic shame, gay men move into a second stage of overcompensation: The disease of More: More money, more muscles, more labels, more cars… multiplied ad infinitum.
Gay men stuck in the ugly adolescence of self-loathing and fear defend against feeling this way at all costs. Instead, they project their own raging insecurities outward. In the process of doing so, they construct false identities of superiority and holier-than-thouness to defend against a raging internal tempest that is the result of their own paralyzing fear of being utterly unlovable. What is the characteristic flavor of this stage’s humor? Cattiness, bitchiness, and just plain meanness. Nowhere has this unholy trinity of inner-hatred-turned-outward been more powerfully and tragically expressed than in the comedic legacy of Joan Rivers.
You don’t have to be hateful to be funny. Carol Burnett and Lucile Ball never stooped to the level of vituperative shtick to demean, dehumanize, or degrade the human condition. Quite the opposite: They ennobled it. Joan Rivers unfurled her fame and secured her fortune by doing exactly the opposite.
Gay icons of yesteryear like Judy Garland were icons in the original sense of the word; Garland reflected and expressed with a trembling vulnerability and raw strength the beating, broken heart of the community, which is why she was – and will forever remain – the greatest icon of them all, having ignited with her passage the gay liberation movement. Now that’s a legacy that matters.
Newer icons such as Madonna and Lady Gaga slashed their way to the top of the charts and into the heart and soul of the gay community with their fierce, unflinching commitment to their art and their messages of manumission (freedom from bondage; whatever those fetters may be.) These grande dames earned their enthronement in the pantheon of figureheads by empowerment, not by hate, and embody ideals to aspire to, whether you like their music or not.
Was Rivers a sarcastic savant? Yes. Was she a fierce fashionista? That’s debatable. But was her Gospel of the Low Blow what we in our community really wish to continue living our lives by? I, for one, do not.
Deaths – whether literal or figurative – are always times of transition and transitions can go either way. Joan Rivers may have been a legend, but she’s no icon that I wish to aspire to. So in our own community’s time of transition I think it’s vital to take a serious moment of pause to ask ourselves, what is the image that we wish to project? What is the community we wish to build? And who are the people we wish to become?