RNIB Connect Radio broadcast a special tribute to mark fifty years since the death of Judy Garland last week. The radio station is Europe's only media outlet run entirely by people who are blind or living with partial vision, and holds a community radio license. It transmits across the UK on Freeview Channel 730. On Sunday night, Gary Moritz's programme “Sunset Melodies” looked back at the career of the woman who many consider to be the mid twentieth century's most important gay icon. Garland died in 1969 at the age of forty seven and already by then her status as an icon to many gay men and trans people was cemented. The website Queerty.com reports that not only was this based on her overcoming much personal tragedy and misrepresentation by the tabloid media, but that Garland knew of and respected her gay audience. “I’ll be damned if I’ll have my audience mistreated.” she is reported to have said in 1965. Some of the more romantic gay historians have suggested that her death in June of that momentous year may have helped provide a catalyst for LGBT people to take to the streets at the Stonewall Inn during five momentous nights of rioting that became known as the Stonewall Uprising. In any case, as the historian Ian Young noted in his 1995 book “The Stonewall Experiment”, Ms Garland's rendition of “Over the Rainbow” in the magical 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz” has become an unofficial gay anthem over the years, performed at innumerable vigils, marches, closings of clubs, and at AIDS memorials in the eighties. Judy still has the power to enthrall half a century after her death and we salute her.
It is also perhaps worth reflecting for a moment on what we mean by a gay icon. Sometimes this phrase is misunderstood by the mainstream media. For example, it is often said that David Beckham is a gay icon. Probably not so - Mr Beckham is undoubtedly a gay pin up, but this is different entirely. To be a true icon, one has to be usually a powerful woman, who has faced down adversity and yet triumphed against the odds. Michael Musto, writing for the US magazine Out.Com named in 2014 his greatest gay icons, which included Garland, Bette Midler, Barabara Streisand and Lady Gaga. Madonna is perhaps the world's largest current gay icon, and she is referred by the popular British gay weekly “Boyz” as “Our Glorious Leader”!.