Gay Iconography: Happy Birthday, Madonna


Fifty-six years ago today, in Bay City, Michigan, Madonna Louise Ciccone came into this world. More than half a century later, the pop landscape is forever changed.

The Queen of Pop’s legacy extends beyond the more than 300 million records she’s sold worldwide. She’s appeared in films (with varying degrees of success), written children’s books and inspired an entire generation of pop stars. But what makes Madonna so iconic — worthy of not just a college class devoted to her impact, but to an entire academic field of study — is her mastery of multimedia, sexual defiance and ceaseless reinvention.

Friends with Keith Haring and a member of the 1980s New York downtown arts scene, Madonna grew out of a heavily queer community. (She’s even attributed her initial push to pursue stardom to her gay ballet teacher.) Madonna’s sound and image pulses with queer sensibility, from the gay ballroom culture referenced in “Vogue” (or “borrowed,” if you’re being kind; “misappropriated” if you’re being serious) to the sweaty rhythms ripped from the clubs. She’s loudly championed equality, spoke out on the AIDS crisis, and, though her track record is far from flawless, she’s driven a huge amount of conversation about queer issues into the mainstream consciousness.

Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it: Celebrate the birthday [material] girl with some of our favorite clips, AFTER THE JUMP


MTV’s Video Music Awards have yet to create a more memorable performance than Madonna’s rendition of “Like A Virgin” at the very first show in 1984. The scene is etched in the collective consciousness: A young Madonna, clad in a wedding dress, descends a massive wedding cake and writhes on stage. It was a definitive moment for Madonna, the network and American pop music.


Madge inked a sweet endorsement deal with Pepsi in 1989 before dropping the video for “Like A Prayer.” The video for the Madonna classic provoked the ire of the Vatican for its controversial use of Catholic symbolism. Eventually the uproar from the religious community forced Pepsi to cancel her contract, but the song reached number one on the Billboard 200 and sold 15 million copies worldwide.


Her music has crossed many genres, including disco, dance and hip-hop. (Let’s not talk about the rapping.) A constant chameleon, one example of Madonna’s stylistic shifts was her interest in ‘90s dance and rave music, which she incorporated into her album Ray Of Light in 1998.

Pop stars who grew up watching Madonna dance and “sing” into a headset mic are still overtaking the charts today. Sure, there was Britney and Christina (whom Madonna famously kissed at the VMAs in 2003), but also Katy Perry, P!nk and, of course, Lady Gaga. The list goes on and on. You can see her duet with another Madonna-inspired star, Miley Cyrus, in the clip above.


For as much carrying on as folks do about Madonna’s controversies and image, it’s easy to overlook her very real talents. No one is going to argue she’s a powerhouse singer, but she is a skilled lyricist and songwriter. As just one example, she received praise from fellow pop-songwriting masters ABBA on her track “Hung Up,” which samples ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” They called it “a wonderful track – 100 percent solid pop music.” 

With someone as prolific (and divisive) as Madonna, there’s always lots to discuss. We've only barely touched on why Madonna matters. Share your thoughts in the comments.


  1. says

    “Queer community”, “queer sensibility”, “queer issues” = fictional concepts that spring from a deeply heterosexist mentality. Quiet as it’s kept, non-heterosexual does not automatically translate into “queer”.

  2. says

    i remember playing Ray Of Light continuously on my CD player and disc man back in 1998. That album changed me, i was 16, and truly – truly – was part of the collective of art and literature that inspired me to come out. my mum used to talk about my sister and i, dancing in the back yard to madonna and david bowie tapes in the 1980s – even as a kid i had that connection to her music. i’ve been listening to her for as long as i can remember.

    happy birthday! and thanks for the music. saw her Reinvention and MDNA tours ( Reinvention was FREAKING INCREDIBLE) and her rendition of “another suitcase in another hall” has been a staple of my family’s music playlists for years.

    i hope she starts to get back the borderline-acoustic guitar sounds she was exploring in Music and American Life – it was a totally interesting avenue for her, and I wish she’d explore it more.

    X-Static Process, Nothing Fails, Gone, Easy Ride….all incredibly underrated songs, which her matured vocals utterly NAIL.

  3. says

    @Jas – illness may have taken my hair years ago (and 6 months of my life, confined to a bed, for what it’s worth) but it did not kill me, nor rob me of my voice, my drive or my ability to stand up to be counted.

    Now, feel free to talk about Madonna, rather than wasting another day trolling to get my attention.

  4. Jon says

    It is worth noting that this “gay icon” has contributed nothing of her 9-figure net worth to the cause of gay equality. She has given nothing to GLSEN or the Trevor Project. She gave nothing to fight Prop 8 or any other anti-gay ballot measure. She has never supported a community center or a youth shelter. She failed to support gay people in Malawi. (And BTW, she never built that school in Malawi either, after taking in millions in donations and displacing residents from a large parcel of property.)

    The last thing that she did for us was an AIDS benefit concert. In 1986.

    Contrast that with people like Brad Pitt, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight anti-gay ballot measures in 5 states and lent his name and talent to the play “8”. Or Daniel Radcliffe, who has passionately supported the Trevor Project. Or Chris Kluwe, who just spent a lot of his own money on lawyers to hold the Vikings accountable for their homophobia.

    Why some people continue to glorify exploiters like Madonna and Bette Midler is beyond me.

  5. Mike says

    @Stuffed Animal – Agree 100%. Don’t know Bobby Hankinson, but the fact that he so casually refers to gay people as “queer” suggests he has some real issues with self-acceptance. Either that or he is just really old and thinks that it is still 1991.

    @Little Kiwi – Sorry about your hair. If it is any consolation, you were as awful person with hair as without. What is this mystery illness which caused alopecia? Was it pathological rage, dementia, or repeated bouts of syphilis?

  6. Rick says

    “Why some people continue to glorify exploiters like Madonna and Bette Midler is beyond me.”

    Because effeminate gay men see bitchy, slutty women who hate and exploit men as vehicles for their “revenge” against a male culture that rejects them. Never mind that these women they live vicariously through are either oblivious to them or in many cases downright hostile to them… virtually all of them are. In the effeminate gay man’s screwed-up, emotionally-damaged mind, these women “represent” him.

    And as for all the men you mentioned who have done far more for gay causes than any of these female “icons”? For the effeminate gay man to embrace them, he would have to embrace maleness–and all that goes along with maleness….in other words, he would have to give up thinking of himself as a pseudo-woman and thinking of men as some kind of alien species…..and start thinking of himself as being a man, himself, which would cause excruciating mental pain when he surrendered his masculinity a long time ago, after internalizing the notion that being attracted to other men makes one devoid of masculinity.

    Madonna is perhaps therefore perhaps the ultimate vehicle for the perpetrators and practitioners of the culture of effeminacy–as bitchy and slutty as it gets and prone to use men for her own purposes and them discard them.

    The whole iconization of such women by effeminate gay men is truly sick and pathetic, but, then again, so are they…..

  7. rebarb says

    While I applaud her sense of activism regarding our community, as an “artist” she always falls short. It isn’t because I think she’s bad at what she’s her mediocrity that has always bothered me. She isn’t a great singer,her songs are bland and as for her acting she’s barely believable. I realize there are some gay men out there who will feel that I’m committing blasphemy, but that’s just how I feel.

  8. Rick says

    “as an “artist” she always falls short.”

    That, too. Even using the term “artist” in connection with a purveyor of formulaic bubble-gum pop with a disco beat is absurd. She will be totally forgotten 20 years from now–at least some of the “icons” like Streisand actually have real talent….not that that makes the “iconization” of them by effeminate gay men any less ridiculous and pathetic.

  9. Jon says

    Rick, those are really 2 different issues. Whether it is healthy for gay men to identify with women is one issue. My view is that there is nothing wrong with gay men having a female icon or role model as a long as we admire her for some universal character trait or some talent or achievement. For example, I admire Elizabeth Warren and astronaut/scientist Mae Jemison. Not because they are women or because I see myself as a woman, but because of their accomplishments and values. IMO, it is unhealthy for gay men to idolize women for their dysfunctional lives (Midler) or tragic deaths (Monroe, Garland) or because of psychological issues which preclude identifying with male icons.

    An entirely separate issue is whether any individual – male or female – should be considered a gay icon if they do nothing for gay people. There are plenty of women who support us and for whom this second issue wouldn’t apply. For example, the actresses Judith Light and Glenn Close. Both have supported gay causes for a very long time. Glenn Close is especially admirable. She made substantial donations to marriage equality in Maine with no fanfare. She just did it, without glory-seeking. Lady Gaga as well, has done a lot for us. I will never forget how she mobilized her “monster army” to call the US Senate to vote on DADT. These 15 and 16 year olds recorded their calls on video and uploaded them to YT. Thousands of teens, 90% straight, calling their senators to fight for us because Gaga inspired them to do it. When has Madonna or Bette Midler done anything like that?

  10. AlexN says

    Whether directly intended or not, Madonna’s irreverence and personal bravery in sticking the middle finger up to all conservatives and religious zealots was more than anyone else has done to allow the mainstreaming of homosexual identity in our culture over the last 30 years, particularly between 1984 and 1994, and so all this talk of being a vulture and an ineffective supporter of LGBT rights is pointless. She isn’t a gay man, and so she isn’t going to solely relate to your plight, but I am quite certain she has consistently been vocally supportive of our “community”, and to deny her great and constant generosity in matters related to AIDS-related charities, both public and private, is nothing more than a perpetuation of self-loathing under the guise of the proverbial ghetto mentality.

    Happy birthday Madonna! You actually are an icon, unlike the last few subjects of iconography on Towleroad!

    Here’s to enjoying the rest of your career, and your fascinating life!

  11. Kylian says

    pff, why are (almost all of) you so bitter? We all danced ,fell in love, had sex, laughed and cried on her records, isn’t this enough to make her amazing? you may like her or not but she’s been around for so long.. she’s iconic! I liked some things she did, didn’t like others, still i wish her a happy birthday. And Rick, you should remember this quote of her: “power is being told you’re not loved and not being destroyed by it”.. somehow i think that thinking of this could make your life easier :) love, Kylian

  12. Henry Holland says

    “We all danced ,fell in love, had sex, laughed and cried on her records”

    No, we “all” didn’t do those thing on (ewwww)/to her records. I never liked her music, which BTW is largely written, played and produced by MEN (tm Rick). Her music often latches on to underground trends years after they first come along, such as the trance-light of “Ray of Light”, which was about four years after that style emerged in Israel and Europe.

    Her version of “American Pie” is a crime against music.

    I’ve never cared about her public personae, always found her “shocking” stuff to be PR managed within an inch of its life and derivative to boot. No, Madge, there’s nothing new or shocking about looking like Marilyn Monroe or showing your tits in bondage gear.

    Yes, yes, I’m commenting on a thread devoted to her, I just roll my eyes at the idea that all gay men are the same and have the same tastes.

  13. Blair says

    These same commenters, who comment under screen names, are incredibly self-loathing people. I am not a fan of Madonna’s music, but cannot deny that she has done FAR more for gay rights than any person in existence. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when gay people were treated like terrorists, Madonna–at the forefront of pop culture–said it was okay to be gay. She stuck her middle finger up at the religious right and for that, I am grateful for.

  14. says

    gay men with an irrational dislike of madonna always come out wayyyyy later than the gay men who enjoyed her music. it’s just so funny. “i’ve never liked her! i don’t get her appeal! i’m angry that other gay men like her”! scream the pathetic grown-adult closet cases.

    well quel freakin’ surprise.

  15. MadgeMan says

    I doubt seriously that you will get anyone reading this to change their position on M: you either love her or you hate her. I’ve never understood this belief, developing over the last decade, that she has done nothing for the gay community. She has publicly conceded that it is because of the gay community that she has a career–years ago, it’s public record. She’s always maintained that is was the support and advice of her gay teacher that pushed her towards NYC and her career. Her earliest friends/ her crowd were mostly gay or gay friendly artists: Martin Burgoyne, Warhol, Haring, Herb Ritts. She hung in the undergroud queer clubs. As her career bloomed, and AIDS ravaged the gay community, she didn’t run away. She hosted events, marathons, threw her support in fully & writing songs about her friends dying of AID. It is now even know that she paid for their medical care, and some of their funerals. It may not seem like much today, but the early to mid 80’s were a totally different time in they gay community. There was no talk of gay marriages and babies. There was no elder housing or trevor project. AIDS was the gay community at that time, unfort. Very few stood up and did something. She was one of the 1st. The community was opening up, but it still was a vastly hidden community. Her iconic Blonde Ambition Tour…every single dancer on that tour was a gay man. Every single one, and she filmed them being openly gay. Her Truth or Dare, filmed to accompany it, was the 1st time that many got to witness out and out gay men having a great time, living their lives being happy, and her there with them supporting and living their lives with them. I know it had an impact on me in high school. She didn’t run away, she supported ACT UP, she mentioned her friends in her concerts. 30 yrs into her career, she still embraces gay rights, whether joining the HRC campaigns or dressing like a boyscout to make people wonder “hmm, why did she do that” or publicly speaking out in Russia on gays there, or speaking out to the crowds on every stop of her last tour (including the boo’s she got in the Southern States supporting same sex marriage) We haven’t even touched on her music, the fashion tie in’s (one of the 1st artists to do so–and with many openly gay designers), the diva’ness. You can’t honestly believe that this woman has not supported our community. She is not a tech savvy modern young artist who is full of social media marvel trying to win over a gay demographic with a couple of poignant songs, soundbites, or multiple appearances in gay clubs to win some fans. Who knows, she probably has written a few checks to gay organizations, but it’s just not public record. She has built a career not on the backs of the gay community, but within the gay community. I think the gay friends that were there with her as she started her career would be really proud of the artist she has become: not only continuing to continue support gay rights, but now helping impoverished women and children, adopting & raising some really amazing children and now supporting inner city organizations in her home Detroit.

  16. Bosie says

    I will always be thankful to Madonna. I grew up in a very strict religious household, catholic school and seminary…when i first heard of madonna was a video. I was walking by a store and i heard the music and stopped to see what it was and who it was. i asked someone at the store who she was…and he said “madonna” …I remembered the name because of the virgin madonna of course. That very year in my summer vacation back at my family’s I went to a record shop and bought my first madonna album, Erotica. LOL To be honest i had no idea half of the things she was talking/singing about…she opened my mind to new things. Here I am, alive….living a whole different and happy homo life :) Thank U Madonna. PS i had to keep rebuying her albums ‘cus the priest and nuns and my family kept taking my albums and getting punished for it. It was worth it.

  17. petey says

    Madonna exploited gay men to make money. And there are TONS of easily impressed gay men who will exclaim “she’s on our side, she’s on our side” even when she farts.

  18. Dback says

    Think carefully: how many women–not just American women, not just women in pop music, etc., but women–define the adjective of “fearless.” Fearless. Brave. Controversial. Boundary-pushing. Re-defining. Tough. The Boss Lady. The trend-setter. The bar-raiser. The rule-breaker. The gauntlet-thrower.

    Love her or hate her, listen to her or don’t, but it is inarguable: she is the most powerful, most iconic, most influential, most talked-about, most impactful woman of the past 30 years. Only Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama (both First Ladies) come close.

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