Diana Ross | Gay Iconography

Gay Iconography: Diana Ross Is A Supreme Icon


Way before Beyoncé could even dream of slaying the MTV Video Music Awards, another female entertainer had risen to super-stardom from a successful singing trio. When Diana Ross had her first number one single with the Supremes, Bey was still about 17 years from even being born.

Diana Ross and the Supremes are one of the most successful groups from Motown Records. Their polished, feminine act helped make them crossover stars, including becoming the first all-female group to have an album top the Billboard Top 200. In addition to her success with the Supremes, she's also a successful solo artist, as well as an Academy Award-nominated actress. She's one of the few people to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one for herself and one as part of the Supremes.

Diana's disco-flavored solo career enshrined her as a gay icon, but she received some pushback for a less than enthusiastic response about gay marriage to The Advocate in 1999: "I just don't think I can speak about this particular issue [gay marriage] because I haven't really given it enough thoughts. It seems like girls, guys, whatever, should be able to live together without a legal contract." This soft answer aside, her music is a staple of pride celebrations across the country and woven into the fabric of gay culture.

Let's revisit some of the ultimate diva's musical high points, AFTER THE JUMP ...

As a member of the Supremes, Diana Ross helped define the 1960s Motown sound. With a string of 10 number-one hits (including "Where Did Our Love Go?" "Baby Love," and "Stop! In the Name of Love")  The Supremes produced some of the most memorable songs of all time. They helped cross racial barriers, pioneering mainstream success for black artists, and setting a new standard of glitz and glamour with their gorgeous gowns. “I think because we were so glamorous that it automatically was a great attraction for the gay community," original Supreme Mary Wilson told GayStarNews earlier this year. "They were the ones who were there at the door first.”


Ms. Ross' second solo single in 1980, "I'm Coming Out," peaked at No. 5 on the pop singles chart. Nile Rodgers got the idea for the song after seeing drag queens dressed up as Diana. It was a bold move to release such a flamboyantly disco song in 1980, as Rodgers explained to Billboard Magazine: "You have to put this stuff in context. Now it just sounds like a pop song. This was the summer of disco sucks. When that happened it was because they hated gay people, they hated black people and women. Look at the pictures of who was there at that disco sucks thing. There ain't a gay person in that baseball stadium, there ain't a black person there and it was a sellout, 70,000 people." Now, the song is widely recognized as a gay anthem, but it also could be interpreted as Diana coming out from her Motown background.


Fans -- gay, straight, black, white and otherwise -- came together for a legendary concert featuring Diana Ross in Central Park. Performing through torrential downpours, the charity event was eventually shutdown due to weather. Diana famously promised to return the next day, spending the original proceeds on the second show, and eventually leading to Diana donating her own money to build the Diana Ross Playground in Central Park.


She definitely wasn't discouraging her gay following with her 1982 single, "Muscles," written by Michael Jackson. A straightforward ode to the male physique, it's the steamy soul song equivalent of a Grindr profile. Fun fact: The video featured a young Gil Birmingham (Twilight's Billy Black).


Diana Ross has been an inspiration for many subsequent performers. Her glamour, style and talents have influenced artists like Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Rihanna. One notable star who has spoken extensively about Ms. Ross' impact is RuPaul. The legendary diva appeared on The RuPaul Show, and Ru co-starred in Diana's video for her cover of "I Will Survive" (above).

That's just a taste of Diana Ross' career (let's not forget films like Mahogany, Lady Sings The Blues, and The Wiz). Share your favorite Diana Ross highlights in the comments.

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  1. It's Nile RODGERS. What kind of writers are here on this blog? Don't they proof? Do research? Know history at all other than what they find on YouTube and Wikipedia?

    Posted by: Sean Maloney | Aug 30, 2014 12:45:52 PM

  2. Is there a reason why she was feature? My first thought was, she died. My second was she got a new album to promote or at least a book.....that's really random.

    Posted by: bambinoitaliano | Aug 30, 2014 1:16:02 PM

  3. Two thoughts on this one...

    First, interesting choice as an "icon." That quote about marriage equality is pretty indicative of everything I've seen about how poorly she appreciates her gay fans. I might celebrate her music, but the diva herself? Not so much.

    Second, EDITING! "I'm Coming Out" was far from her second solo single. Appearing a full decade after she began recording without the Supremes, it was her 25th Hot 100 chart entry, a string that included five #1 hits.

    Posted by: RBHSOregon | Aug 30, 2014 1:38:01 PM

  4. Always loved Diana Ross. She was always such a interesting person as well as one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. She sang lead in the Supremes who are the greatest American singing group, male or female of all time with 12 #ones. Only the Beatles have more. They have 20 #ones. Diana created the persona of "pop diva" all by herself, hence the original diva. Read it and weep haters.

    Posted by: Mic | Aug 30, 2014 2:29:39 PM

  5. At this point, Bobby Hankinson should just admit that he wants to be a woman. I mean, really, there's no other way to explain this never-ending series on icons, 90% of whom are females. Bobby, please go full tranny and stop trying to work out your issues on Towleroad.

    Posted by: Pete | Aug 30, 2014 2:35:18 PM

  6. and to my generation she was the voice behind the theme from "The Land Before Time" - play that tune and watch children of the 80s smile and melt :)

    And for what it's worth,, and I don't care who disagrees, but her Dorothy in The Wiz was a touching reimagination of a character. and her vocals on HOME at the end? Hi, chills.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Aug 30, 2014 2:44:56 PM

  7. Lordy you can tell how young the poster are on this article....whew! A lot of you can't spell and you don't know what an icon is as well. Oh, you think you know what is "awesome" and what is not, I don't think so. You will as you get a bit older and believe it or not wiser. Diana Ross is indisputably one of the most talented entertainers of the 20th century. She ranks right up there with the unequaled voice of Barbra Streisand and did more to get black talent on records, on TV and on tour than most of those who came before her, even though they too were legends before their time, such as Lena Horne and Shirley Bassey. Don't be so quick to judge talent from the past as nothing like the talent of today. There will be icons from today and icons in the future, but Diana Ross and the Supremes were the black female Beatles, and Diana herself will hold a place in pop and R&B history as long as we appreciate real talent and drive.

    Posted by: BrokebackBob | Aug 30, 2014 2:56:44 PM

  8. It's always amused me that her two biggest singles, Ain't No Mountain High Enough and Love Hangover were essentially over produced instrumentals.

    Posted by: DBAUDIT | Aug 30, 2014 3:08:54 PM

  9. Interesting comments.

    I was never a great Ross fan. All of my childhood friends were--they adored her. I mean, she was one of the few "crossover" GLAMOUROUS Black stars we had back then (1960s). I appreciate her NOW.

    I almost got into a physical fight in the park one night (and y'all know what kind of a park I'm talking about) because I said that QUEEN ARETHA was a much greater and more important artist/singer than Ross--to me, and maybe to Black America.

    Child, don't mess with Diana Ross fans--they'll cut you. Gay folks will defend their icons, won't they?

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Aug 30, 2014 3:15:49 PM

  10. Diana Ross is one of a few artists that still out touring. Fun fact! Diana Ross has toured the world continuously for eleven years straight to (SOLD OUT) performances in her golden young age. Her peers voices have not weathered the storm like Diana. She still sounds like her records. Speaking of records her current album 'I Love You' is still selling, it's well over 800,000 copies at a price of $59.99. That's impressive you do the math.

    Posted by: Jon | Aug 30, 2014 3:56:30 PM

  11. You can't blame Diana for answering that she honestly "hadn't thought about" LGBT marriage in 1999. Few had. I as a gay man remember being ambivalent about it at first. The entire concept wasn't something people thought about or realized the benefits of till well into the 2000s. She doesn't get semi-judgmental like Bette Midler did on Larry King, Diana correctly censors herself and doen't want to answer till she's thought about it and no doubt discussed it with her many gay friends, not all of whom would have been for it back then.

    Posted by: C | Aug 30, 2014 4:08:05 PM

  12. BTW, less than 2 years layer, Diana Ross was dancing on a Pride float in WeHo with RuPaul. As important as Marriage Equality is now, don't forget, there weren't any glitter bombs or even much pushback from the community when all the anti-marriage initiatives passed in 2004. We didn't really get organized about Marriage till 2007, after the big Dem victory in 2006. By the time 2008 came around, Dems were openly courting LGBT issues and Equality was then written into the Democratic Party Platform. But back in 1999, this wasn't the case. What was Britney Spears reaction back then? She, as well as most people would have probably mocked the entire concept. Even in the early 2000s they make fun of it on 'Will & Grace.' So don't badmouth one of our original allies and divas. Diana has always been right with us on our journey towards equality.

    Posted by: C | Aug 30, 2014 4:48:48 PM

  13. Such naysayers in this comment section!

    Diana Ross is certainly an icon-- a gay icon but also a hugely successful crossover artist at a time when there weren't so many black crossover artists. Like Barbra she was a singing star who became a movie star, albeit having a shorter-lived movie star career despite her Oscar nomination. I loved, loved the Supremes--loved watching them perform on TV--but didn't much appreciate her solo recording career at the time the way I do today-- I didn't appreciate her voice. But I certainly spent many happy hours dancing to her songs.

    Bobby Hankinson: a nice overview of her career. Love the Central Park video. I would also include a clip of her singing in Lady Sings the Blues, one of her career high points. But "I'm Coming Out" her 2nd solo single? Seriously?

    Posted by: Robert | Aug 30, 2014 5:50:15 PM

  14. Aaaahh, a genuine female singer for a change!! Diana Ross rules. A legend and a true humanitarian.

    No Auto-Tune or miming on a stage like today's corporate bimbos, thank goodness.

    Posted by: petey | Aug 30, 2014 6:10:03 PM

  15. But Petey/Rick, you hate women. If your'e going to troll, at least be consistent.

    Posted by: Tyler | Aug 30, 2014 6:28:38 PM

  16. Grew up near Detroit - went to my first Diana Ross concert at 16... by myself - a little Gay white kid in the middle of thousands of people at Cobo Hall in Detroit...

    ... and when Diana sang "Reach Out and Touch", she had all of us hold hands - me and two obviously straight HUGE black guys... I can just imagine how strange it looked - two big guys holding hands with a little white kid lol

    It was an amazing concert... The woman was and IS a star... and yes, an ICON...

    I still get a smile on my face thinking about that concert!

    Posted by: Daffyd | Aug 30, 2014 6:52:10 PM

  17. Well, she certainly had talent. That's really key to icon status, and she's had longevity, which is another requirement, and she's a demanding diva, which is a third requirement, so she's batting a 1000 so far.

    Another aspect to her icon status is how reclusive she's become. She does no press any more and never appears on TV, unless you see her live the only image you'll have of her is from years ago when she wasn't so shy.

    Posted by: anon | Aug 30, 2014 7:13:13 PM

  18. Interesting comments per usual. My two cents: Ross has been nothing but gracious to ALL of her fans...straight,gay,black,white. The same can't be said for many other "gay icons" and I'll just leave it at that. She just completed another sold out summer tour and edis in the short list to replace Celine Dion in Vegas this fall. She's far from reclusive. She's been on television just as much as many of her peers in the last few years; probably most notably on Oprah's last season in 2012. She attended the premiere of Motown The Musical last year and garnered a lot of press. Lastly, someone remarked that her fans are rabid. Again, not as defensive of some other "gay icon" fanbases who take to social media to attack their diva's detractors on a level that I'm not sure I've ever quite seen among adult men!

    Posted by: Lulu | Aug 30, 2014 7:31:48 PM

  19. Bobby! I'm with RBHSOREGON! Edit thyself, child!

    Miss Ross racked up four number one singles (1970-1980) before
    "I'm Coming Out" charted in 1980:

    "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", 1970
    "Touch Me In The Morning, "1973"
    "Theme From Mahogany", 1975/6
    "Love Hangover", 1976

    Posted by: Kathy | Aug 30, 2014 8:08:33 PM

  20. Her fans are insane.

    Posted by: Astro Boy | Aug 30, 2014 8:21:06 PM

  21. I vote yes for Diana. Remember her on Ed Sullivan with the Supremes and wow, did she have star power even back then. I've watched her star rise and she was on top of it for a long time. I'd go see her perform at the drop of a hat.

    Posted by: Martin | Aug 30, 2014 9:16:58 PM

  22. Wasn't Diana Ross at "Christmas In Washington" last year or 2012? I thought she was sensational on "Amazing Grace" and The Obamas seemed to like her.

    Posted by: Ric | Aug 30, 2014 10:12:38 PM

  23. In '94 or '95, I saw Diana Ross live and midway to the end of the concert, she sang Endless Love. A male couple stood up and slow danced in the aisle and she said, "you're blocking the view" and I thought what a hater she was. But then she followed it with, "Come up here" and brought them up on the stage to slow dance while she sang Endless Love and said as they were jumping onto the stage, "Love is beautiful" That was enough for me.

    Posted by: AT | Aug 31, 2014 2:04:11 AM

  24. I saw Ms. Ross years ago outside Frankfurt, Germany when she was on tour. I've seen many a big name star over the years, but she was the all time BEST! I visited a friend in Detroit who told me Diana lived in his Apartment building & I was in total AWE! When I hear her Songs today, I think that was the best of times. When one left her concerts, we were all full of love & hope & GREAT feelings for everyone.

    Posted by: James | Aug 31, 2014 5:47:21 AM

  25. When I was about 8 years old I begged my grandparents unsuccessfully to take me to see the Supremes at the Ottawa exhibition. Little did I know that it would be one of their last performances. I'm still pissed about that, lol. I did eventually get to see Miss Ross at an unforgettable concert in 1995 in Toronto where she announced the results of the Quebec referendum to an adoring audience. The word Diva gets tossed about so easily these days but Diana is truly one of them.

    Posted by: Paul | Aug 31, 2014 8:12:05 AM

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