Chaz Bono | Cher | Gay Iconography

Gay Iconography: What Is It About Cher?


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. 

I started thinking about this feature back in June last year when I first read that Cher would be headlining New York City's Pride Dance On the Pier. Now, while of course I appreciated Cher and could easily sing along to many of her hits, I didn't really consider myself a "Cher person," per se. I didn't own any albums, I couldn't recite her IMDB page from memory and I can barely do a decent approximation of that thing she does with her tongue.

Still, Cher performing on the pier called to me like a big, gay siren song. I couldn't resist the urge to buy tickets. Of course I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to see an icon, especially surrounded by my people.

That's what got me thinking. What is it about these (mostly straight, mostly white) female figures that resonates so strongly with gay men? It's obvious why we would laud figures like Harvey Milk and Bayard Rustin; it's less immediately clear why we gravitate toward the likes of Cher, Bette and Barbra. Then there's a whole slew of people who don't necessarily fit the same Judy/Liza/Cher mold, but are adored by the gay community anyway. Who gets to decide the definition of gay icon?

Well, we do. After all, our interest in these people says just as much (if not more) about us than it does about them. These are conversation starters, and it's been amazing to see some really interesting discussion take place in the comments.

So, in that spirit, let's start the new year talking about the one who first inspired this feature, someone that Liza Minnelli once said was a bigger icon than Barbra Streisand and herself. Let's talk about Cher.

Get in the spirit with just a few Cher clips, AFTER THE JUMP ...


One attribute regularly associated with gay icons is an outsider status. Cher's hit "Half-Breed" tells one such story of a girl shunned by both her white and Native American heritages. In the clip above she performs the song on a 1973 episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.


In addition to television and music, Cher is also an accomplished film actress. She's appeared in Mermaids, The Witches of Eastwick and Burlesque. (She also played a lesbian character opposite the legendary Meryl Streep in Silkwood.) However, it was her turn in Moonstruck that won Cher an Academy Award for her performance.


Cher is one of the top-selling artists of all time. Her No. 1 hits span six consecutive decades and include classics like "Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves," "Dark Lady" and the unforgettable "If I Could Turn Back Time." Her transition to dance music in the late '90s pioneered the use of auto-tune and continued her success with subsequent hits "Strong Enough," "Song For the Lonely" and last year's "Woman's World."


Cher made not one, but two appearances on (the divisive) sitcom Will & Grace. In the clip above, Jack is too busy obsessing over his Cher doll to realize that it's the real deal (and not a drag queen) right behind him.


Cher's son, Chaz Bono, legally changed his name and gender in 2010, becoming an outspoken and prominent transgender activist. While appearing on David Letterman in 2010, Cher discussed Chaz's transition. Sure her pronouns aren't perfect, but she demystified the experience to a broad audience (and displayed some of her signature Cher attitude toward Bill Maher at the end).

Yes, Cher is a gay icon (maybe even the gay icon), but why? What about her story appeals to you? Does she feel as relevant today? Tell us in the comments.

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  1. We gravitate towards Cher, Bette, and Barbra (and Madonna and Robyn) because they represent outsider culture and being unapologetic about it. And we admire their desire to not assimilate to the norm simply because it'll make the majority comfortable or accept them. There's nothing more empowering than the example of strong people confident in their own being, and not giving a damn what others think of them, because assimilating in the LGBT community is NEVER worth it, and ultimately we will never be able to assimilate to the straight majority.

    Posted by: iNorio | Jan 3, 2014 5:56:07 PM

  2. We ... ?

    Posted by: Andy Towlette | Jan 3, 2014 6:05:40 PM

  3. She's a weird looking lady with weird looking outfits and sings with a weird sounding voice.
    That pretty much sums up any gay female "icon".

    Posted by: David | Jan 3, 2014 6:13:23 PM

  4. Finally, a real icon. Some of the other ones you've suggested were pretty weak.

    Posted by: graphicjack | Jan 3, 2014 6:17:39 PM

  5. I always assumed it was because she looked and sounded like a male doing a really really good drag act. And when she realized she had a gay following, she embraced it, and ran with it.

    Posted by: JustJack | Jan 3, 2014 6:25:19 PM

  6. You nailed it INORIO.

    of course these are very different woman, and not all gay men adore them -- or if they do not in the same way.

    What I love about Cher is the way she can present herself as a Totally Fabulous Fantasy figure and yet at the same time be perfectly ordinary. She's one of the very few Big Stars I can actually imagine sitting down and having a cup of coffee with. Can't say that of Babs at all.

    Oh and BTW there are a LOT of gay men in and around Cher's videos. "If I can Turn back Time" is a Gay Wet Dream Deluxe.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Jan 3, 2014 6:34:37 PM

  7. JUSTJACK, she's a female impersonation of Elvis. God love it.

    Posted by: iNorio | Jan 3, 2014 6:39:48 PM

  8. Inorio (above) summed it up nicely. We crave role models and stars who seem to be unconcerned with the approval of anyone else. We want someone with the courage to speak the truth.

    Posted by: hephaestion | Jan 3, 2014 6:41:18 PM

  9. I believe it was Harry Hay who proposed the idea that in the preChristain world many men we'd classify as GBT today were often Priest(esse)s. He sited the Cybele/Magna Marta and her Gallia priestess which used to be forced to live outside the walls of Rome on Vatican Hill because Roman Male Citizens couldn't be Galli but it was the state religion odd..and the modern diva worship is the modern incarnation of some innate call amongst us to rally around strong female images...i was a fan of divas long before I even know what being gay meant

    Posted by: Eric Hufford | Jan 3, 2014 6:55:17 PM

  10. cher is a VERY generational thing IMO. I know no gays in my life who have the slightest interest in her aside from a couple of drag aficionados.

    Most "gay icons" are very dated and apply to people well over 50. Cher, Bette Midler etc.

    But we all know that Boomers decided that their culture was GAY CULTURE. Like most boomer culture its been forced on the rest of us for like 50 years

    Posted by: Homo Genius | Jan 3, 2014 7:00:37 PM

  11. Because when I was coming out of the closet, all i knew was that gays liked cher, so I drove around the city with the windows down, Cher turned up thinking "The gays will find me" They didn't but I grew to love her for her prescence and music during a difficult time for me.

    Posted by: Thrutch | Jan 3, 2014 7:02:56 PM

  12. The attraction to Cher is multi-generational. She has taken big risks, walked on the edge, overcome a lot of personal and career obstacles and endures.
    She is a generous individual and philanthropist. She is self-deprecating and driven. These are other aspects and qualities that also attract us. We aspire to do these things and LGBT know plenty about overcoming obstacles.
    thank you

    Posted by: feo | Jan 3, 2014 7:19:59 PM

  13. She seems bright, kind, and tough---things most anyone wants to be. But to be a icon means that I'd have to like someone's music, and that isn't the case for all the icons mentioned above and proposed in this column so far aside from Grace Jones. (And even with Grace, I'm not sure that she achieved the level of fame that would make her a true icon, though I love her just the same.) I'm not denigrating Cher or any of the others, just pointing out that there are no universal icons.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jan 3, 2014 7:53:57 PM

  14. She's been played easily and multiply in so many drag shows over the decades, she's had a successful, unstoppable career that started--christ, when I was born (just before the Cleo & Caesar days when she met Sonny; and she has oft-imitated distinct mannerisms and gestures: hence,gay icon.

    Posted by: Sage Hoebermann | Jan 3, 2014 8:39:17 PM

  15. She's been played easily and multiply in so many drag shows over the decades, she's had a successful, unstoppable career that started--christ, when I was born (just before the Cleo & Caesar days when she met Sonny); and she has oft-imitated distinct mannerisms and gestures: hence, gay icon.

    Posted by: Sage Hoebermann | Jan 3, 2014 8:41:30 PM

  16. She's been played easily and multiply in so many drag shows over the decades, she's had a successful, unstoppable career that started--christ, when I was born (just before the Cleo & Caesar days when she met Sonny); and she has oft-imitated distinct mannerisms and gestures: hence, gay icon.

    Posted by: Sage Hoebermann | Jan 3, 2014 8:41:31 PM

  17. Cher has been pumping out music and entertainment for my entire life, having first charted with Sonny the year before I was born. Perhaps it is partly generational, or maybe it's just all personal as to who we consider icons. I never got the appeal of Judy Garland, and Babs just wasn't my cup of tea, but Marilyn and Liza were always fun, and of course I was in love with Madonna since the first time I set eyes on the video for Burning Up on Nite Flight (friday and saturday nights on TBN). My taste in gay icons spans most of the 20th century til now. It didn't occur to me that others restricted themselves to only contemporary icons. Cher is an original, one of a kind personality. On top of that she knows camp, she knows showmanship, she is an excellent actress, comedienne and performer. Anyone drawn to gay icons is gonna like her if they take a real look at her life and work. And that's probably true of the others as well.

    Posted by: Mike | Jan 3, 2014 9:03:53 PM

  18. She was a very beautiful woman, and she had one of the most powerful natural voices around. And as others pointed out, she was a confidant outsider. That counts for a lot with us.
    But I would prefer that gay icons would be people with brains and kindness and fairness and character. Of course, that'll never happen. Popular culture is obsessed with looks and style. Gay culture absoluetly drool over them.

    Posted by: Wilberforce | Jan 3, 2014 9:21:01 PM

  19. She dresses like DR Frank-N-Furter?

    Posted by: Hyde | Jan 3, 2014 9:32:08 PM

  20. @Homo Genus: Which performers resonate with your generation the way that Cher does with some older Boomers like me? I'm not being sarcastic or hostile; I'm just curious.

    Posted by: BrianM | Jan 3, 2014 11:03:05 PM

  21. I'll never understand the infatuation and obsession some gay men have with women.

    Posted by: Knock | Jan 3, 2014 11:26:06 PM

  22. My infatuations and obsessions run more toward the gay or gay4pay porn stars of Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher and Bel Ami Studios. You guys can have Cher and Barbara. I'll take Brandon, Connor and Kris.

    Posted by: andrew | Jan 4, 2014 12:08:51 AM

  23. They aren't icons as much as they are/were " allies". They realized their work spoke to gay people- they didn't shy away from those associations. They spoke up for gay people long before it was fashionable. Many of the comments in these discussions on "gay icons" center around whether people identify with their work. Whether you identify as a " Cher" person is irrelevant. People that had the guts to stand up for gay people when the world was hostile were rewarded with huge support of their careers. Conversely- Anita Bryant or the Duck Dynasty built careers in being anti gay. Our icons - at some point or in some fashion - had our backs. It was brave and admirable- no matter what they sang or wore.

    Posted by: Redhook | Jan 4, 2014 12:40:47 AM

  24. Gay Icons tend to be sting independent women and Cher is the original. She has pushed boundaries and fought for equality with every move she has ever made (career and personally). That is why in ten years from now women like Kathy Griffin and may be Lady Gaga will be considered gay icons.

    Posted by: Michael | Jan 4, 2014 5:08:14 AM

  25. Yearning for love, overcoming adversity and always triumphant music. Honest about her feelings, even when they are not socially acceptable.

    After all these years, I still like to dance.

    Posted by: Rikon Snow | Jan 4, 2014 5:52:35 AM

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