Gay Iconography: Is Marilyn Monroe One Of the Ultimate Gay Icons?


There’s no doubt that Marilyn Monroe is all sorts of an icon. She’s an icon of femininity, an icon of sexuality, the iconic blonde bombshell. From her tumultuous and ultimately tragic history to her struggle with identity and hyper-sexual persona, she’s also been hailed as one of the ultimate gay icons.

Yes, there’s the pout, the fluttering eyelashes, the image of the wanton woman who wore only Chanel No. 5 to bed. All that is part of the big persona that continues to be a cultural touchstone, recognizable decades after her death. However, like Judy Garland, what’s made her such an enduring legend among gay fans lies in the more tragic aspects of her story. Marilyn’s fight against her dumb blonde image, her troubles with men and her crippling insecurity, made her a relatable presence for many who struggle with their sexuality, coming out and finding acceptance.

Born Norma Jeane, Marilyn overcame a troubled childhood, including growing up with her mentally ill mother, bouncing around foster care and suffering sexual abuse. She was married and divorced three times, and allegedly had an affair with Pres. John F. Kennedy. She made about 30 films before her death at age 36 from an overdose of barbituates.

During her too-short life, Marilyn often displayed a candor, wit and charm that belied the dumb blonde persona she became most famous for on screen. She also had some pretty progressive views for the time. She famously fought for Ella Fitzgerald to play a nightclub in Los Angeles by promising to sit front row every night. And she was ahead of her time on LGBT issues as well.

"When two people love each other, who cares what color or flavor or religion they are?” she said to the lesbian president of her fan club, Jane Lawrence, according to a recent biography. “It's two human beings. It's beautiful. Love is beautiful. It's that simple."

Spend some time with some of our favorite clips of Marilyn and her fans, AFTER THE JUMP


In 1953, Marilyn replaced Betty Grable in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The film included what would become one of Marilyn’s signature songs, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” Her co-star Jane Russell described Marilyn as: “very shy and very sweet and far more intelligent than people gave her credit for.”


For most people, there's one scene that immediately comes to mind when you mention her. Perhaps the most famous Marilyn moment is the street scene in The Seven Year Itch in which she’s standing over the subway grate in that white dress, the breeze blowing up her skirt.


She starred alongside Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the campy cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot. Her work as Sugar earned her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, but the shoot was a difficult one for Marilyn, who suffered a miscarriage while filming.


The phrase “often imitated, never duplicated” could not be more appropriately applied than it is to Monroe. Singers have often emulated her, including Madonna (above), Mariah Carey and Lana Del Rey. Her story has been told on screens both large and small by actresses including Megan Hilty, Katharine McPhee and Uma Thurman (on Smash), Ashley Judd (Norma Jeane & Marilyn) and Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn).


Marilyn Monroe imagery has also become a staple of the gay community. She’s a drag queen favorite, from the the legendary Jimmy James (in the spectacularly awkward Geraldo clip above) to Ivy Winters' less successful attempt on RuPaul’s Drag Race season five. You’ll find her slapped all over gay bars throughout the country. Even Elton John’s "Candle in the Wind" was originally written to honor Monroe after her death.

What are your favorite Marilyn moments?


  1. JC says

    Strangely, we watched How To Marry A Millionaire on blu ray last night. Hadn’t seen it in several years and they really did do a nice restoration on the picture. Marilyn always strikes me as so charming in this film…love when she mangles the quote about why she won’t wear her glasses around men.

    From what I’ve read about her she seemed to become trapped by public perception of her image. Maybe that’s why gay men appreciate her? Nearly all of us have encountered people with a perception of gay men that we don’t fit into or are trying to shatter.

    It’s a shame she died so young. I wonder if she could have aged gracefully in Hollywood.

  2. Martin says

    My earliest movie star memory is of Marilyn, having seen her on a small black and white TV in the 1950s.
    I remember being at summer camp when I heard she died. This 10 year old (at the time) went back to his tent and cried.
    Growing up in Hollywood, oh how I wish I could have seen her in person just once. Definitely a gay icon for this guy.

  3. Joseph says

    No discussion of Marilyn’s gay iconography is complete without mention of a particularly important gay man in her life, choreographer Jack Cole. Perhaps more than other person, he helped shape Marilyn’s image, working with her on 5 films: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, River of New Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Some Like it Hot, and Let’s Make Love. He was also a great friend and confidant.

  4. Rick says

    “what’s made her such an enduring legend among gay fans lies in the more tragic aspects of her story……her troubles with men and her crippling insecurity made her a relatable presence for many who struggle with their sexuality”

    Well, thanks for the insight into why effeminate gay men regard straight women who were/are completely oblivious to them as “icons”. I guess since I never regarded my sexuality as “tragic” or a source of “crippling insecurity” and never had “troubles with men” (as though men were some kind of alien species rather than people like me)….it never occurred to me to live vicariously through someone of the opposite sex….

    Testimony to the screwed-up mental and emotional state of the effeminate gay man.

    My own icons growing up were (male) football players, basketball players, and baseball players and I was entirely comfortable being a male who was attracted to other males….and did not consider myself to be anything other than a male. I was, in fact, the “ring leader” in our neighborhood and among my peers….and had a healthy family environment around me.

    I guess that is the difference between healthy, masculine, and well-adjusted gay men and the unhealthy, masculinely-deficient, and emotionally damaged gay men who end up embracing the culture of effeminacy and the female “icons” that symbolize it.

    What a sad, sad bunch you are.

  5. Mike in the Tundra says

    The Marilyn Monroe persona has become bigger than life, so it’s not surprising that she is an icon for many people. On a personal level, I’ve been fascinated by her after seeing “The Prince and the Showgirl” on late night TV.

  6. Rick says

    Just remember to ignore me, folks. The way my family always has. I am, after all, not an actually openly-gay man nor am I even particularly masculine by anyone’s definition – i’m merely a physically unattractive and miserable lonely sort of man, who comes on the internet to anonymously express to everyone how much my parents hated gay people, via my learned disdain for anything gay.

    I’m not well-adjusted at all. I’m terribly insecure and unhappy in life, and the proof is that I will always remain an anonymous presence; Simply put – I’m not man enough to be the kind of gay man I wished I was, and I want you all to imagine I am. Know what I really am? A sad, lonely, unloved pitiful creature for whom internet anonymity is my only refuge.

  7. Rick says

    In case my psychological breakdown wasn’t clear enough, let me be as clear as can be – i hate effeminate gay men because my father hated effeminate gay men, and my father did not love me. Rather than accept that my right-wing white family were simply terrible people, I have chosen to blame all you effeminate gay men for the fact that my father never loved me.

  8. UFFDA says

    The last two Rick posts are authored not by Rick of course but by a pathetically insecure and threatened gay guy – Kiwi most likely – who cannot endure the thought of a gay man who is not identical to himself as described. That’s it.

    The first Rick post is by a healthy if rather intolerant gay man who’s very fortunate path has also become something of a blinder to him since there are many gay men who are naturally effeminate types and who cannot help it. That being said (and I so wish he would modify his stance) he has a spot-on eye for all the phony posturing and invented effeminancy which has long been such an eyesore for gay people generally. If rather intolerant, Rick is a highly intelligent and well-adjusted man who merely needs to enlarge his heart. Still, he is a tonic addition to the Towleroad thread.

  9. Rick says

    It’s good to know your dad didn’t love you either, UFFDA. Thanks for creating another alias with which to back me up, I like using various aliases to pretend that the threatened and insecure homosexuals are those of us who troll anonymously and not the actually-openly-gay folks who live real lives and are real people.

    Yes, my father also hated effeminacy and lord knows the man didn’t love me at all. I like to pretend that you and I are healthy, and also not the same person, but the reality is that the day we die not a single soul will mourn or remember us. We’re not real men, after all. We’re the saddest of gay stereotypes – the insecure closeted trolls who use internet anonymity to lash out at the world that has passed them by.
    Does anyone here take us seriously? No. Oh well. Just like in real life.

  10. Rick says

    @UFFDA Just to be clear, I do believe that some part of effeminate behavior is learned at a very early age, as young boys who become aware of their attraction to boys and have no role models for how to do so and maintain their masculinity….end up projecting themselves onto females. To that extent, you are right, they “can’t help it” because the emotional damage has been done in their formative years and is very difficult to un-do.

    That said, it is still learned behavior and can be unlearned, even if it is difficult to do. And I don’t want anyone being given a crutch by being told that “it’s just the way you are and there is nothing you can do about it” because that is just not true.

    It is important that all gay men recognize that all effeminate behavior, conscious or unconscious, is a consequence of oppression and an internalization of the societal view that attraction to other males is incompatible with masculinity….and for that reason, it is NOT a healthy thing and should never be encouraged or condoned.

  11. Rick says

    It’s also important to remember that I don’t believe a word that I ever type. If i did, I’d be even more visible and ubiquitous than Kiwi, who is the living embodiment of all that I hate – a loud, proud gay person who doesn’t care what others think. *elegant curtsy*
    If I believed a word I ever typed, I’d be showing myself on here and the masculine example I want you all to think that I am. Alas, I’m not a masculine man, nor am I even openly gay. I’m a stereotypical internet troll. And what I hate most about effeminate gay men is that they don’t walk around every day with the fear I have.

    it’s true what my impostor says of me – my father hated effeminacy, and my father did not love me at all.

    I would love to be able to prove to everyone on here how masculine and manly and strong I am, but I’m neither of those things. I am a cowardly gay man, and I always will be.

    If my father didn’t love me, despite all my failed attempts at faux-macho posturing, then it’s simply unfair for gay men who I feel are effeminate to be accepted and embraced by their own fathers. I hate pride parades, especially PFLAG, because it’s group of family’s and straight people all loving and supporting people whom I feel are effeminate and weird and stereotypical. I hate it when people are loved for being themselves, and I was never loved despite trying to do everything my family demanded of me.

    And yes, I like to pretend that people in here are threatened by what I say. But even I have to concede reality: I’m the threatened one, which is why I cling to internet anonymity. I’m not man enough to stand up to be counted, but I do have the ability to show everyone how sad my life is via text on a screen.

    Yes. My father did not love me, and he hated effeminacy. And I refuse to accept that the problem was that I was actually just a cowardly example of a gay man.

  12. Donny says

    Rick – the fact that your “icons” growing up were all sports players who display hyper-masculinity (that you would never attain) and that you were the “ring leader” in your neighborhood is a blatant indicator of your own “crippling insecurity.”

    You think you’re so well-informed with regard to the historical characteristics of gay men and you think your views are progressive. The fact is you stick your foot in your mouth time and time again. And you don’t even realize it. Funny and sad.

  13. Rick says

    I am merely a closeted homosexual who never grew the pair needed to come out and be a worthy member of the extended gay community. My father hated effeminacy and so do I, and I choose to blame effeminate gay men for the fact that my father was ashamed of me. I will never show myself, as it would shatter the illusion I want people to have of me. I hate openly gay effeminate men who are accepted and embraced – because, as I said, no amount of forced masculine-posturing was enough to make my father love me, or accept me. That’s why I’m here every day – I’m angry that fems aren’t as insecure as I am.

  14. oncemorewithfeeling says

    A momentarily interesting comment thread becomes all about the trolls. I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

    Welcome to Trollroad, folks!

  15. will says

    How is Marilyn a gay icon when she’s an icon for everybody? I’m sure gay men in the 1950s enjoyed her movies, but so did everyone else. Norman Mailer wrote a book about her. She’s a cultural icon.

    It’s as if a gay man says: I LIKE her and everybody I know does, too. She struggles. She drinks and pops pills. I’m gay. Sometimes I feel like popping pills because of an uncaring society. Therefore, she’s a gay icon.

    Jane Russell must be a gay icon, too, because so many gay men like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” But, guess what? If all gay men disappeared off the earth tomorrow, Marilyn’s movies would still be played on TCM. That fact that so many gay men idolized her more, like Judy, after death, after the struggle with alcohol and barbiturates — just like gay men of the 1940s and 50s and 60s drinking themselves to death because they were not allowed to fit into society.

  16. UFFDA says

    The negative responses to Rick signed “Rick” are all by KIWI, the most terminally threatened of the threatened.

    As to Rick himself: can you give me an example of a self-admitted effeminant man who changed himself into a masculine one? I don’t know of any. We need some evidence for what you insist on believing.

  17. says

    @Will – the same way Barbra is a gay icon, while she’s also an icon for anyone who loves theatre, and was one of Roger Ebert’s favourite entertainers of all time.

    It’s not about “who is an icon for us, exclusively” but about whom greater-collective gay culture has taken under our beautiful wings.

    a person can be a rock icon, and a gay icon. a filmic icon, and a gay icon. a canadian icon, and a gay icon.

    it’s not about mutual exclusives. so calm down.

    i grew up seeing Monroe’s films – how to marry a millionaire cracked me up as a kid. that blind scene with the models? HILARIOUS.

    but, for any confused homosexuals in here – it’s not about “who is an icon for the gay community alone” – not at all.

    david bowie is a gay icon as well as being a cultural rock god icon.

    hope that cleared things up for anyone struggling with understanding this.

  18. says

    UFFDA – why don’t “you and rick” (HA!) show yourselves, eh?

    i’m not threatened – folks who feel threatened retreat into the darkness of invisibility. take a good hard look at me – i’m everything you never had and never got the chance to be.

  19. Dennis says

    Disclaimer: I am not a Rick sockpuppet or a Kiwi sockpuppet and I haven’t even read their exchange above. I am sick of both of them.

    That having been said, I find it extremely disturbing that Towleroad keeps pushing dead heterosexual female substance abusers as supposed “icons” for gay men. There is a real self-loathing that underlies these “icon” posts. Could you imagine straight men being told that they should identify with someone because they are “troubled” and “insecure”? It would be taken as an insult. But for a certain generation of gay men, it is a mark of honor to wallow in your own victimhood and failure.

    I am pleased that the Millennials and the generations that follow will look to actual gay men as icons and that their status as icons will be based on their achievement, not on their “tragic ends.” Much healthier to have Michael Sam, Connor Mertens, Sgt. Eric Alva, NPH, or Sir Ian McKellen as your icon than a series of prematurely deceased, depressed heterosexual women.

  20. will says

    Rick is struggling for acceptance among an uncaring, condemning gay society. And displaying self-destructive behavior. Therefore, Rick is a gay icon.

  21. says

    Dennis! hey gurl! i call your bluff, too.

    they’re not “pushing” anything. they’re addressing what already exists.

    you’re either showing that you are ignorant of, or at the very least dismissive of, people whom have been rather-historically iconic in our community for the last few decades, or you’re a trolling hack who thought he’d switch things up with a new screen name in a new attempt to spin this off-topic.

    either way – kudos to missing the point!

  22. David says

    I am 20. i dont know anything about this actress. just speaking for me and my group of friends, we look up to Matt Bomer, Ellen, George Takei, Macklemore/Ryan Lewis, and Zachary Quinto. that’s for celebs. For heroes we look up to openly gay soldiers and some of these couples who are together for a long time and just got married and also Edie Windsor.

  23. says

    then what you should do, twenty year old “David”, is check out her films.

    Start with All About Eve. She has a small role, but an important one for her career. Then get on to viewing Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire.

    there’s a very easy to learn about things you don’t know anything about. and it’s also enjoyable. so, enjoy.

  24. says

    An icon isn’t necessarily someone you have to look up to or consider a hero or role model. An icon does have to define an important cultural moment in history and has to stand the test of time. Different things … Troubled long-dead actresses are unlikely to be contemporary role models and contemporary pop stars and actors may or may not be important five years (much less five decades ) from now.

    Marilyn obviously passes the icon test, since everyone (except perhaps for sheltered young David) knows who she is and she has certainly endured (young death helps!), but it’s debatable whether she’s a gay icon or simply an icon. She’s been appreciated by all sorts of people for various reasons.

  25. Benji says

    Logically, it makes very little sense for MM to be a gay icon. An icon is someone with whom one identifies as either a hero/defender or an idealized version of oneself – i.e., someone like me, only better in some way. But MM was not a defender of gays; she never even spoke on the subject. And there is little basis on which a gay man in the 1950s/60s could identify with her.

    Contrast MM (on the left) vs. 1950s/60s Gay man (on the right)

    Woman – Man

    Hetero – Homo

    Rich – Not rich

    Famous – Not famous

    Desired by most men – Reviled by most men

    Sought after for love/sex – Sought after for violence/blackmail

    Envied by women – Pitied or ignored by women

    The only commonality, as is pointed out above, is that she suffered “crippling insecurity,” abused drugs and died young. Her positive traits and accomplishments are not the basis of the connection; the dysfunctional aspects of her life are. That seems to me to be a terrible basis on which to choose an icon. By embracing an icon on this basis, we are essentially declaring ourselves pathological. We might also send the message that tragic, early death is something that is expected of gays and that to OD early in life is to go out in style like Marilyn. Totally false and totally the wrong message to internalize or to send to gay youth.

  26. Hank says

    I don’t think Marilyn’s gay fans necessarily identified with her because of her offscreen tragedies, so much as they appreciated the wit and theatricality of her onscreen persona, which subtly played with her feminine allure as artifice, put-on and strategy . This was a breath of fresh air, and a message in a bottle, in a time when heterosexuality, in all its airless 1950s cultural specificity, tended to present itself as the universal, single, normal, natural, way-things-are. Her comic genius, lauded in the highest terms by Olivier, Billy Wilder, and Lee Strasberg, among others, sometimes gets overshadowed by her status as eternal pin-up girl.

  27. UFFDA says

    Marilyn was beautiful and well known, I saw her films and heard the stories. That’s it. I didn’t go back to see her films many times. I never associated her in any way with my sexual orientation. She was no icon and I can’t imagine why she would be to me or to any gay man. None of it makes sense. Most gay men – if this really applies to them – are lost in a bubble of their own. Just as I am.

  28. will says

    I’m not sure if Marilyn Monroe is even relevant in the 21st century. Katherine Hepburn is a much better actor to idolize (pre-1960; before she became a caricature of herself), if you have to idolize somebody. Independent woman, independent thinker, self-reliant, smart, funny, slightly odd, makes her own way. Marilyn, especially in those last years, was a blowsy, insecure wreck. In the earlier years, she incarnated sex and materialism, which is diverting, though not much of a legacy.

  29. Omar says

    I’m sure I am echoing prior comments. Marilyn is an icon to human beings that are/were aware of her. Obviously she was beautiful, while that beauty came from subterfuge.. it didn’t make it any less appealing.

    Gay icon or otherwise, this woman just appeals to everyone.

  30. Enchantra says

    I have never understood the fascination with Marylin Monroe, Judy Garland, or Liza Minelli. I like some of their work, as I do Bea Arthur, Patricia Neal, and Barbara Stanwyk. Would I set my alarm clock to watch one of their movies? No.

    By the same token, I don’t have posters of Guy Madison or Steve Reeves on my wall either.

  31. says

    Hank is quite right about Marilyn’s appeal. It’s not the “tragedy” of her life (a lot of bad luck and less-than-wonderful men) that all of us — gay and straight — find so appealing. It’s her wonderfully exuberant personality.

    I’m so glad someone cited Jack Cole. He was far more important to her artistry than Lee Strasberg. Marilyn had a terrible time remembering lines, but being a dancer she had no trouble remembering movement. So Cole was called in all the time to help her out on this score by turning her acting cues into little dances — like the scene in “The Prince and the Showgirl” where she’s traipsing about the sitting room. George Chakiris, who was a Jack Cole dancer and appears with Marilyn in the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number tells me she was really nice and at that stage in her career quite professional. He says that when Cole called “cut” she’d go right to her spot and patiently wait while the lights and camera were re-set — at which point “action” would be called again and she’s go right back into it with great verve. He says she was really nice. Joe Brainard ( a very important gay artist more people should know) was crazy about Marilyn Monroe. Joe was a very reserved “boy next door” type gay guy. Not anyone to be pegged to a fanboy of any kind. But he loved Marilyn. Lots of people from all walks of life loved her. And will continue to love her.

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