Express Yourself: The Role Celebrity Can Play in Encouraging Social Acceptance

For this Gay Pride Month, let’s thank Madonna for scandalizing the nation by embracing (sometimes literally) the LGBT community.
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Madonna performs in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Amy Nichole Harris/Shutterstock)

Madonna performs in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Amy Nichole Harris/Shutterstock)

When we think of bad-girl celebrities, political change is not the first thing that comes to mind. But this Gay Pride Month, when we take time to thank the elders who helped move us closer to equality—though she probably won't appreciate being hailed as a historical foremother—I'd like to suggest that we also take a moment to thank Madonna.

Supporters of lesbian and gay rights have a lot to celebrate right now, especially the growing number of states making it legally possible for same-sex couples to marry. In her heyday, Madonna was better known for dating Warren Beatty and accessorizing with rosary beads than for taking political stands. Nonetheless, she helped to change how we think about lesbians and gay men today.

From horrific acts of violence to pervasive bullying and discrimination, many hurdles to full equality remain. The rise of same-sex marriage has not magically dissolved prejudice, but it has revolutionized social attitudes. In the past, homosexuality was synonymous with deviance. I have a poster in my office advertising one of the first Hollywood movies to depict lesbianism, The Children's Hour (1963). It euphemistically alludes to its controversial subject matter with one word: "different." Now the number of lesbians and gay men rushing to the altar suggests that maybe we aren't so different after all. Many of us now seem almost disappointingly normal; we're just like everyone else, exchanging vows, wrangling over china patterns, and debating whose turn it is to take out the garbage.

No one would suggest that Madonna was a celebrity political activist on par with Bono or Angelina Jolie, but she may have won as many hearts and minds to the lesbian and gay cause as any lobbyist.

But, of course, it wasn't always so. A lot had to happen to create the legal environment that allows us to observe that many same-sex couples have more in common with straight ones than we once assumed. l. We had to come out of the closet and challenge the laws that made gay sex a crime and discrimination a right. The AIDS epidemic had to reveal the deadly costs of prejudice. Religious leaders had to redefine doctrine; scholars had to show that our ideas about sex had changed before and could change again. And Madonna had to scandalize the nation byembracing (sometimes literally) lesbians and gay men.

The 1990 video for "Justify My Love," her ninth number-one hit song, showed Madonna being seduced by a man and a woman. She chose gay porn star Joey Stefano to model for photos in her 1992 book Sex. The 1991 documentary Truth and Dare included footage of Madonna surrounded by mostly gay male back-up dancers and chatting casually with comedian Sandra Bernhard about the latest women she was dating.

What role have celebrities played in the path to same-sex marriage? Research shows that for the majority of Americans who identify as straight, the single most important factor in accepting gay people is whether or not they know someone who is openly gay. Celebrities are by definition known to millions, and though of course we don't really know them, we often know all too much about them.

When we think about celebrities effecting social change, earnest advocates and positive role models probably first come to mind. Consider Ellen DeGeneres, one of the first TV actors to play a lesbian character and to discuss her own lesbianism openly. Ellen was clean-cut and funny and, in every respect except her sexuality, seemed normal to mainstream America.

But before Ellen, there was Madonna. In the 1980s and ’90s, Madonna was an icon for gay men. Traveling in Madrid without a guidebook in 1995, I knew I'd found a gay bar when I saw the men inside watching Madonna videos. At a time when RuPaul could never have had a TV show, some felt that Madonna was just ripping off gay subculture for shock value. But whatever her motives, Madonna made lesbians and gay men more visible. It was quite a change to see someone wanting to be taken for gay even though she wasn't, instead of hiding it even though she was.

No one would suggest that Madonna was a celebrity political activist on par with Bono or Angelina Jolie, but she may have won as many hearts and minds to the lesbian and gay cause as any lobbyist. Significantly, she did so by celebrating lesbians and gay men at their most marginal. Madonna was a role model because she never apologized for being herself. She became a star by cultivating controversy and notoriety, and her example suggested that gay people might also successfully occupy the mainstream without sacrificing their difference.

Without Madonna, we never would have had Lady Gaga, who encouraged fans to call their representatives and ask for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell—and wore a meat dress to the Grammys. Nor would we have had Lindsay Lohan, who though a negative role model in many ways showed courage in refusing to hide her relationship with Samantha Ronson. All of these women remind us that you don't have to be the same to enjoy the same rights.

As we reflect on same-sex marriage and think about how normal the social and legal position of lesbians and gay men in America has become, let's recall that those paving the path to normalcy have often exhibited the most audacious weirdness. We got to where we are today because brave, outrageous people were willing to take brave, outrageous stands.

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