A Brief History of Lesbian Icons


WHAT MAKES SOMEONE a lesbian icon? Because so few of us are famous, every celebrity lesbian is automatically thought of as a lesbian icon. Not so. Jane Lynch, Rachel Maddow, and Jodie Foster could easily be misinterpreted as “icons” just because they are hyper-famous lesbians. But to me, the lesbian icon must have some kind of timeless mythology about her, a transcendent, gay game-changing essence that every new lesbian naturally inherits the knowledge of as soon as she is hatched out of that closet and into gay life. An icon is a subculture-defining figure of subtle but endless worship!

Although lesbians can be too quick to adopt the idols of Gay Boy worship such as Cher and Gaga—because they are recognized as “gay icons” and we want to be part of a community that has a recognizable identity—gay icons and lesbian icons are not one and the same.

And not all lesbian icons are lesbians. Hilary Clinton and Tilda Swinton are honorary lesbians, butches have historically admired Marlon Brando and James Dean, and for some reason lesbians always lose their minds when Robyn comes on in the club.

Finally, an icon must be a person whose existence is like one big inside joke for the community. When you say his or her name, it has to sound like an innuendo, or as though you’re sharing a secret with someone who already implicitly knows the whole story. Here’s my best shot at a list (in no particular order):


1. Nancy Drew. At least, so claims Alice Pieszecki, the most gay-culturally informed character on The L Word. I don’t know or understand what makes Nancy Drew a lesbian icon; perhaps it’s the nosiness, which in lesbian terms could be interpreted as an affinity for gossip. Perhaps the independence; she don’t need no man. I see that magnifying glass and all I can think of is the obsessive and refined extraction of grapevine information that lesbians routinely do before dating a girl and throughout the subsequent breakup. A straight girl may argue, “All girls gossip, gay or straight.” This is a false statement. Lesbian gossip is so serious that we need a new word for gossip.

2. The L Word. It’s the thing every lesbian has in common. You could put two completely incompatible women together in a room and if they’re both gay then they can at least talk about The L Word. They’ll do a slow nod and say “L Woooord” in unison, with inscrutable grins on their faces. Are they being ironic? Are they legitimate fans? It doesn’t matter. The words L and Word make you smile and you don’t understand why. It’s not a good show. It is a poorly made show. But my most successful house party of all time was an L Word Drinking Game Party. I wasn’t gay pre-L Word, so I don’t know what life was like for lesbians then.  I cannot even imagine.

3. Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson. These lesbians are my icons. There is an authenticity to Lindsay Lohan that sets her apart from the multitudes of disposable train wreck starlets. Of all the train wrecks, Lindsay Lohan is the best at it: an American icon of Tragic Young Hollywood. And until recently (when she denied her bisexuality to Piers Morgan and my mother mailed me a photo copy of the interview to support her theory that every long-haired lesbian will eventually go straight) Lohan wore her queerness openly, shamelessly, but also casually, which I personally appreciate. Most of all, I am a sucker for any sexy, dysfunctional and tragic couple that starts drama in expensive clubs. I don’t care about tabloids and celebrities. But I do care when young and beautiful people disturb the peace with their raw, obsessive love. To me, that is the pinnacle of a particular kind of glamour and it speaks to the sucker in me who wants to believe in larger than life romance. Even better, they were the first gay tragic beautiful batshit crazy couples in Hollywood, chasing after each other in Escalades and slapping each other around in the lobbies of luxury hotels. Have you seen the videos of Lindsay sobbing on Samantha’s front doorstep? I’ve seen them all. Dyke drama sucks. Glitzy, desperate, drug-driven butch-femme Hollywood dyke drama is iconic.

Photo courtesy Jeff Vespa/Bossip.com.

Photo courtesy Jeff Vespa/Bossip.com.

4. Andrea Gibson. All of the tumblr-addicted baby dykes love her because she’s poetic and androgynous. She is a highly quotable spoken word poet who throws around the word “sweetheart” a lot. Seeing her perform made me cringe at first because that’s just the effect that spoken word has on me—and then I got really into it. She’s poignant, bold, and viral.

5. Jackie Warner. I am not so familiar with this one, but apparently an older sector of bi-curious housewives are into her, so I’d like to consider her culture-defining. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAejP9CRq-Q

6. Amber Heard. A destined icon, should she discontinue her affair with Johnny Depp. There’s a certain kind of lesbian that worships Amber Heard. Usually self-loathing lesbians who are outraged by the stereotype that “all lesbians are ugly.” I am one of these lesbians. Self-loathing, superficial lesbians love Amber Heard because of her pretty dresses and red lipstick. She’s subverting the norm by being so hot and feminine!

7. Kristen Stewart. So awkward, so gay. There’s a silent stare-down going on between us and her. It’s a stare-down that is invisible to the straight eye, but it is happening and it is extreme. We have also been maintaining a stare down with Ellen Page, but she’s not an icon. The fact that an inordinate number of lesbians have an unexplained attachment to the Twilight series is what qualifies Kristen Stewart. The Runaways sealed the deal; that mullet.

8. Katharine Hepburn. Apparently she was gay, and lots of lesbians are proud of this.  It’s a Kristen Stewart situation, old Hollywood-style.

9. Justin Bieber. Duh. http://lesbianswholooklikejustinbieber.tumblr.com/

10. P!nk. I don’t get it, but apparently she is for us what Cher is to the gays. She’s one of those straight girls who possesses the perfect amount of masculine sass and has obtained the correct style of short haircut (note: this is also why Miley Cyrus is moving quickly up the ranks of lesbian favor).


11. Tegan and Sara. They provide the soundtrack to every pubescent coming out story and all the baby dykes take Tegan and Sara CD covers to hair salons so that they can do their gay makeovers the right way. Tegan and Sara have had a huge hand in establishing the aesthetic of this generation’s lesbianism, skinny jeans, inventive hairstyles, androgyny but also necklaces and rings. The lesbians at my alma mater (Sarah Lawrence College) would never admit to the influence, but they all dressed like Tegan and Sara.

12. Ellen. Every lesbian I’ve loved has cited Ellen as her coming-out impetus. She never quite did it for me, but the one fact of lesbians is that she opened the door in a big way, the older generation of gay that has helped all of us, whether we know it or not. Probably in some way there is no lesbian that Ellen has not helped, and she’s so inherent in the community that she might be the essential lesbian icon. She’s definitely the first.



About M.J. Corey

M.J. Corey lives and writes in Manhattan, where she attends Columbia University's nonfiction writing program. Her work has been featured by The Brooklyn Rail, Killing the Buddha, and The Newer York, among other places. For more, check out her blog at mjwriting.tumblr.com.
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6 Responses to A Brief History of Lesbian Icons

  1. BigBudzTheBully says:

    This has no comments because it’s corny and white…

  2. The Eulogician says:

    What abt Janelle Monae?

  3. That Gay Cousin says:

    Ummm how is my queen Ellen page not an icon and Janelle Monae!!! I TAKE SIRUIS OFFENCE!!!!

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