Gay Iconography: What Is It About Cher?

 

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.

Comments

  1. says

    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.

  2. JustJack says

    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.

  3. says

    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.

  4. hephaestion says

    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.

  5. says

    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

  6. Homo Genius says

    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

  7. Thrutch says

    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.

  8. feo says

    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

  9. Paul R says

    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.

  10. Sage Hoebermann says

    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.

  11. Sage Hoebermann says

    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.

  12. Sage Hoebermann says

    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.

  13. Mike says

    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.

  14. Wilberforce says

    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.

  15. BrianM says

    @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.

  16. andrew says

    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.

  17. Redhook says

    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.

  18. Michael says

    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.

  19. Rikon Snow says

    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.

  20. Hylas says

    How about portraying a gay hero like Alan Turing, Mark Bingham, or Daniel Hernandez? Someone gay who did something spectacular not another washed up old singer.

  21. Tristram says

    As a 20 something I have very little interest in Cher, but understand her appeal as a strong independent woman who refuses to conform to society’s norms and demands.

  22. Ginnysboy says

    Redhook has said it best!

    I have read the comments and it strikes me that there are many factors that play into what exactly is an “icon”.

    I believe there is a difference in being an icon and being a hero and do believe it can be a generational thing.

    I am 50 years old which basically makes me a little older then the someone from the “generation” of her reign, but I learned to appreciate Judy Garland and loved her and considered her an icon. You do not have to be from that generation to learn and understand about people, places and events that are part of our culture and history.

    I consider Cher an icon and Bette who are more in my generation, as well as Madonna, but would also put Pink in that category of which a lot of younger people would consider her not of my generation!

    We of all generations should be open to learning about our history and embracing it. There are so many people who are our heroes, icons, mentors and we have a lot to learn from all of them.

  23. says

    love her! always have, always will. MOONSTRUCK anyone? Come back to the five and dime, jimmy dean jimmy dean? silkwood? mask?

    the lady is a legend.

    i think it’s hilarious that the “I HATE CHER!” brigade remain resolutely closeted, while those of us who’ve enjoyed her remain Out.

    😀 how well is hating Cher helping you, huh? so far, it’s not empowered y’all to go out and change the world :)

  24. tagg says

    Cher is and will always be the #1 Diva ever. She was the 1st female singer to turn her career into a Brand. She went from being a folk singer to an Icon in a mere 5 yrs. By the time the S&C show was a huge hit she had a Cher doll, Clothing line & Cher products before anyone else even thought it could be done. She was the 1st singer too have a perfume named after her. She moved onto a tv specials, broadway, movies and concert tours. All the while never changing who she is to suit the public. She lived her life in the open and always came clean with her mistakes. She also showed a different side of Glamour…you didn’t have to be dressed in Armani or any of the so-called “hot designers” of the moment. She dressed as she pleased and was always Dressed to Kill! Cher is an Original and will never be replaced.

  25. Rene says

    Well, at least Bobby Hankinson learned the definition of an icon before preparing his next installment. You’re correct, Bobby. Cher is an icon, and that has a lot to do with a long, successful body of work.

    I still think it’s a pointless feature, though. I could read (very little to read) this kind of thing on BuzzFeed. Towleroad has aimed to be more substantive in the past. This still isn’t living up to that.

  26. Knock says

    And right on cue here’s Little Kiwi, come to stamp out meaningful discussion by framing anyone who doesn’t worship Cher as a closeted self-hating jerk.

    There’s more than one way to be gay, Kiwi, and thankfully it doesn’t require your approval.

  27. Lance says

    Cher has been an amazing presence in my life at the times I’ve needed an presence. Her songs speak of self empowerment and knowing her self worth, and that is what so many many of the LGBT community crave. She looks at adversity and says “Fu*k you!” and some of us may not be able to have her courage. She is an inspiration to me, and I only wish the gay community could give her back a fraction of what she’s given us. You can disagree; so please send me money to remove my Cher tattoo on my arm. 😉

  28. MuchMuchMunching says

    Why don’t you talk about Bjork? I may have missed one of these, but all of them are ‘icons’ from 50- 100 years ago. So, why not do someone who is slightly more current.

    This brings up an issue, who, if anyone, do young gay men think of as an icon? Gaga? Kati? Jennifer Hudson? Ke$ha?

  29. Ed says

    It’s mostly an American thing because in Latin American and Asian countries all the straight guys danced along their girlfriends to disco songs, Cher, Celine Dion, Elton John, and other friends of Dorothy, up until the 1990s. This association to gay culture from these icons or type of music is strictly a United States thing. Of course, like everything else in this country, is has now spread worldwide and now the rest of the world is associating these types of acts (e.g. Lady Gaga) with gayness. But yeah, up until a couple of years ago, going to Cuba or Lebanon and listening to a straight guy along to Cher had no gay ramifications.

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