From the tragic to the bland

Observations on icons

Whether it's Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Bob Geldof, everyone has got an icon these days. It's a handy way of boiling down complex hopes and dreams into a single, instantly recognisable motif, sometimes one that can be shared by people all around the world. But it is not always easy to settle on one. So how can a whole body of people, such as gay folk in Britain, choose someone to evoke their own multifarious spirit?

Ivan Massow, the gay entrepreneur and former chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, has identified 50 21st-century icons by quizzing 30,000 gay professionals. The list is both predictable (Madonna takes the top spot, Kylie is not far behind) and intriguing (the Queen and Margaret Thatcher). The poll and resulting photography exhibition, however, speak loudest as a glossy photo story on the struggle for gay identity.

The tale kicks off with the muted portraits of Tchaikovsky, Gershwin and Oscar Wilde, all showing degrees of discomfort before the lens and encouraging us to think that they are the unwilling faces of a closeted community. From the silver-screen ice queens Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich to its high-camp, big-hair, colour images of Liza Minnelli and Dolly Parton, the show romps through power, beauty and genius to addiction, suicide and tragedy. It features an all-star cast including Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brando.

Forward to 1990 and a blue-skied shot of the late film director Derek Jarman, looking wholly unburdened despite his terminal illness; it is hailed by Massow as "a pivotal moment in gay history". Add figures such as Elton John, George Michael and Freddie Mercury acknowledging their homosexuality, and it seems that the shackles have been well and truly thrown off, unmasking new and exciting icons for the gay community to revel in.

Today's far more inclusive climate, however, seems to have reduced the need for tragic figures and symbols of liberation, and the icons are less interesting as a result: bland, uninventive and, well, straight. An anguished, hard-won fight has been stripped down to the chiselled jaws of Brad Pitt, David Beckham and Jude Law. Does coming out now equate to dumbing down? Not quite - but we've got the dragged-up, burlesque wonder of the Scissor Sisters to thank for that.

"Icons of the Gay Community" runs until 6 August at Getty Images Gallery, 46 Eastcastle Street, London W1

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain is great