Donna Summer | Gay Iconography

Gay Iconography: Should We Praise Donna Summer?

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The phrase "gay icon" gets tossed around a lot, but what does that really mean? Welcome to Gay Iconography, a new feature where we present a proposed iconic figure or character and then ask you to weigh in with your thoughts. Last week we passionately debated if Judy Garland still mattered to gay men today. The comments illustrated that even the most widely-accepted gay icons are still not universal. This week's installment is even less cut-and-dried.

There are few dancefloors that have not been graced by the work of Donna Summer. The Queen of Disco earned five Grammy Awards for her hits-heavy catalog, including "Last Dance," "She Works Hard For the Money" and "On the Radio." Even though many associate her music with the soundtrack of the 1970s' gay club scene, her personal reputation with the gay community is not without its troubles.

After becoming a born-again Christian, Summer allegedly told a concert crowd in the '80s that the AIDs crisis was sent from God to punish homosexuals. She would go on to deny ever making such a statement, but many of her records were returned to the label and her music was boycotted in many gay clubs.

Put on your polyester and get ready to re-examine this disco diva, AFTER THE JUMP...


Donna Summer drew inspiration from Marilyn Monroe when she recorded her first U.S. hit, "Love To Love You". There's even more moaning and groaning in the 17-minute extended track that was made for the discotheques (and laid the foundation for seemingly unending extended remixes we're still subjected to in clubs today).



Her album "Bad Girls," which featured hits including the title track, "Hot Stuff" and "Dim All the Lights," helped Summer garner eight Top 5 singles within a two-year period in the U.S.



If camp is requisite to attain gay icon status, Summer's time on ABC's Family Matters as Steve Urkel's Aunt Una certainly qualifies.



Summer's hit "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" featured one of the ultimate gay icons, Barbra Streisand. While we couldn't find any video of the two divas dueting on the track, this version with Rosie O'Donnell is bizarrely compelling.


Get More:

Fans of RuPaul's Drag Race may be most familiar with "MacArthur Park" as the soundtrack to Manila Luzon's epic lip synch. Watch her destroy the stage with the intensity only a man dressed as a woman dressed as Big Bird could possibly conjure.


What do you think? Can an artist's work overshadow their personal actions to connect with the gay community? Can a performer be an icon without being an ally?

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  1. Yes. Always. Look at her, for crying out loud. If that isn't the personification of what gay men wished (don't deny it) looked like I don't know what it. And that voice! That rumour about her saying those horrible things is just that – a rumour. A rumour that has been disproven (I think). But, in a time when Katy Perry and Keisha are considered icons and the 'voice' (hahahah) of a generation, I can totally see the younger gays disagreeing.

    Posted by: PeteG | Nov 29, 2013 5:24:01 PM

  2. When was she EVER a "gay icon"? Unless "Disco" = "Gay" I'm not aware of anything that would confer "Icon" status upon her.

    Are the Bee Gees "gay icons" as well? How about Tavares? The Trammps? Kool and the Gang? It seems like there should be a higher standard for "Icon" status than "they played her/his records in gay discos in the late '70's"

    Posted by: Daddy Todd | Nov 29, 2013 5:30:22 PM

  3. This is a tired debate, and was already re-hased on Towleroad after her death.

    Summer was a 1970s icon, and a disco icon, but really not a gay icon per se.

    Also, she's dead.

    Next topic, please?

    Posted by: Final Word | Nov 29, 2013 5:42:40 PM

  4. No doubt she's considered an icon because of her disco hits, and for some of us 70s disco=gay. I don't really see her as a gay icon, but I can't imagine going into a gay club and NOT hearing her music. I love her, and I love her music.

    Posted by: Gregor | Nov 29, 2013 5:49:59 PM

  5. Donna Summer wasn't just the Queen of Disco, she was the Queen of Gaydisco. And yes, Gaydisco is one word.

    If you think that gay and disco were not synonymous then you either were not alive during Disco or you were living in a distant suburb where your long hair and zipper front Levis were perfectly matched by your inexplicable devotion to Aerosmith or the Ramones.

    I saw Donna Summer in concert and trust me that the crowd could not have been gayer if Grace Jones had been opening for her.

    The truth is that most of the Disco music you heard on TV or the radio was NEVER played in a real disco. KC And The SUnshine Band and Tavares were top 40 pop, not Disco. Donna Summer was Disco.

    Try Me I Know We Can Make It was perhaps the first deep club music (aka drug music) until Cerrone and Alec Costandinos came along.

    Posted by: Enchantra | Nov 29, 2013 5:52:16 PM

  6. Why is she a gay icon? Other than her public singing performances, we know nothing about her. She was not a public figure and never said anything positive towards the gays.

    Posted by: SpunkyBunks | Nov 29, 2013 5:53:20 PM

  7. Quick answer yes and no.

    Donna was never trying to be a gay icon, disco icon, or icon period. She just wanted to be a singer, famous, and wealthy. Her extraordinary talent allowed her these wishes. She wasn't exclusively for this this team or that. She believed in the good in people - all people. Yes, she also believed in her faith.

    This allegation has been going on for over 30 years. I would love to see one piece of factual evidence that before, during, or after this 30 years that Donna's actions ever supported truth to that rumor.

    Posted by: jakeinlove | Nov 29, 2013 6:05:16 PM

  8. She was a gay icon, no question. But then she screwed it up because she's apparently not too bright. From Wikipedia:

    >>In the mid-1980s, Summer was embroiled in controversy after she allegedly made anti-gay remarks regarding the then-relatively new disease, AIDS, which as a result had a significantly negative impact on her career. Summer, by this time a born-again Christian, was alleged to have said that AIDS was a punishment from God for the immoral lifestyles of homosexuals...Because of this alleged quote, thousands of her records were returned to her record company. Summer publicly denied that she had ever made any such comment, and in a letter to the AIDS campaign group ACT UP in 1989 said it was "a terrible misunderstanding. I was unknowingly protected by those around me from the bad press and hate letters... If I have caused you pain, forgive me." She apologized for the delay in not making a response earlier and closed her letter with Bible quotes (from Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians).

    I find it difficult to believe that she didn't know for 4 to 5 years that she was being slammed left and right by her gay fans or that her label was receiving thousands of returned records in protest. But gay adulation for her is much like that for Judy Garland---a generational matter of timing and taste in music. To me it always seemed like a PR failure that went on for years.

    I also have no idea why anyone would attribute false statements to her.

    Posted by: Paul R | Nov 29, 2013 6:06:14 PM

  9. Today I can say that I'm as gay as the day is long, but I used to dream of Donna Summer in the late 70s, way before I was willing to fully accept being gay. I can't speak for everyone, but because she comforted me, empowered me, and lifted me up during a painful process of self-actualization that took way too long, Donna Summer is my icon. I will love and revere her forever.

    Posted by: David | Nov 29, 2013 6:08:56 PM

  10. Damn, Bobby, I just noticed some of your cunty disrespect. Wish you could've resisted the temptation to answer your own rhetorical question for us.

    Posted by: David | Nov 29, 2013 6:17:11 PM

  11. got some informatios

    Posted by: Wilma Foxts | Nov 29, 2013 6:18:31 PM

  12. Your articles are not savvy or sophisticated enough for Towleroad. They're not even researched or educated enough.

    Please so not do another one until you understand your subject--and your audience--better.

    Posted by: JeffNYC | Nov 29, 2013 6:30:08 PM

  13. Yes, of course Donna Summer is a gay icon. And frankly, some of the stories about remarks she may or may not have said are at this point just "urban myth."

    Posted by: D.B. | Nov 29, 2013 6:32:42 PM

  14. I associate Donna Summer with my high school years, when she had her string of hits. For rural kids used to California 70s rock, her fantastic voice singing this new (to us) sexy disco stuff was a thrill. How could good kids not love "Hot Stuff" or "Bad Girls" at that age?

    Because I associated her with my straight high school friends, I never thought of her as a gay icon or really thought of her at all again until the AIDS-remarks controversy. By that point, I gave her the benefit of the doubt because I wanted to think of her fondly.

    When a lot of her hits were played again around the time of her death, it was a reminder what a talent she was. If you were at the discos for "Last Dance"--yep, she could be an icon.

    Posted by: Ernie | Nov 29, 2013 6:37:56 PM

  15. i still don't get icons or divas. why do gay men need to have a strong woman speak for them? are we so weak that we can't speak for ourselves? yeah music can be uplifting, and everyone has their own taste, but how does that get to the artist speaking for me or even needing to?

    Posted by: m | Nov 29, 2013 6:39:57 PM

  16. She had some very good songs, but we'll forget her. I'm not ready to forgive, but I can separate the art from the artist in most cases (Woody Allen, yes, Mel Gibson no)

    Posted by: Adam | Nov 29, 2013 7:01:06 PM

  17. Garland and Summer were real talents with incredible voices.

    We spend so much time revering "Madonna" who cannot sing was in the right place at the right time (although I praise her work ethic) but frankly, what exactly has she done to warrant the status of gay icon? She goes on awards shows and talks about bullying? Sorry - ask anyone who knew her then...head of her class and popular cheerleader...

    I found this on Summer as I remember when it happened:

    Posted by: grandiron | Nov 29, 2013 7:25:22 PM

  18. If Towleroad was around 30 years ago, Andy would post her anti-gay remarks and we'd all dogpile on her like she was Alec Baldwin then leave her for dead.

    Posted by: will | Nov 29, 2013 7:27:32 PM

  19. It's an interesting question. But it's only the tip of the ice burg.
    Of course Summer was a gay icon. And maybe she made those hateful remarks. If so, an adult would have to rethink his feelings about her.
    But celebrity worship itself is very immature.
    If gay people knew how corrupt the Hollywood crowd are, they would run the other way.
    On the other hand, it's pretty much a harmless preoccupation.

    Posted by: Wilberforce | Nov 29, 2013 7:36:43 PM

  20. Disco was originally gay. It became mainstream as most of what is considered "gay" eventually does. She was one of the originals and because of that she is a gay icon.

    Posted by: ladi | Nov 29, 2013 7:55:37 PM

  21. Donna Summer never made any such statement. Or rather New York magazine, which she sued for printing that she had made such a statement, could not produce any evidence that she ever had and she won her lawsuit against them. Facts matter. Yes, the rumors that she said such things caused her problems in her career but claiming she said something without being able to say where or when is irresponsible, especially when there is a legal case to back her up.

    Posted by: Houndentenor | Nov 29, 2013 8:12:51 PM

  22. @Houndentenor: Thanks!

    Posted by: Jack | Nov 29, 2013 8:38:26 PM

  23. She was never a gay icon. She was publicly homophobic despite the fact that she had a large gay following.

    Posted by: Mike Ryan | Nov 29, 2013 8:55:31 PM

  24. Donna Gaines, from Dorchester, got adopted by gays. Gays weren't her first choice. But as major consumers of dance music, it would have been malpractice to avoid us as a market. Compare to Bette Midler, one of many divas who actually did 'sell' directly to gays, yet also changed her views over time. There was no concern for that, yet as if Ms. Summer were easier to control, gays were up in arms over one and not the other. So while the real question is why 'idolize' or 'iconize' any of the dance music artists who are not gay or lesbian, unless we put an asterisk next to more names, there should be no such condition attached to any.

    Donna Summer's catalog is the soundtrack of an era. As with most music artists, that catalog is the true iconic legacy.

    Posted by: kravitz | Nov 29, 2013 9:15:44 PM

  25. The lawsuit was settled out of court, and its terms were never publicly revealed.

    Posted by: Paul R | Nov 29, 2013 9:29:36 PM

  26. 1 2 3 »

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