Gay Icon: Judy Garland

The original gay icon, there is no replacing Judy Garland. Her memory is so syncopated with homosexuality , that she remains a frontier in the community half a century after passing.


Born Frances Ethel Gumm in Minnestota, 1922, Garland was raised in Vaudville, making her start on thestage at the tender age of just two-and-a-half. For years she performed alongside her family until her teens where they were relocated following a scandal involving her father. This scandal was that he had allegedly made sexual advances towards male ushers; while her mother had an affair with a family friend, her closeted father discreetly strayed with younger men.

By 1935 Garland was brought in for an interview at MGM, and the 13-year-old signed on with the studio. She was reportedly too old for child roles, and too young for adult ones, leaving her in a limbo of playing the girl-next-door. The studio made her wear caps on her teeth, a rubberized disk to reshape her nose, and was called a “little hunchback” due to a slight curve spine igniting a body issue in the actress at a young age.

Shooting movies with MGM, Garland was strung out on uppers and downers, alongside many of their younger actors, to control their energy around shooting schedules. She was put to work constantly with little time for a personal life, and would be bound by corsets and fed diet pills to be more appealing on screen.


Over The Rainbow

The Wizard Of Oz has always been a gay classic due to the allegoric nature it shares with the homosexual experience.

The story is set in a sepia world with mean neighbours, drab relatives, and a heartfelt longing and fantasy for somewhere out there being something better. Following the yellow brick road lead to a new world with unfamiliar experiences, flamboyant characters, and a life full of colour. Even once returning home, things are changed permanently for the better as the wide-eyed outcast has matured.

At the time of the films release, homosexuality was not an openly discussed topic, so gay men seldom had the luxury of viewing relatable content in cinema, or on television. Seeing a young girl beautiful, smart, and talented follow their journey cemented Garland as an immediate idol to the young gay men who viewed the movie.

The queer elements of Oz crafted an eponymous phrase “friend of Dorothy” which was used in code shortly following the flick by gay men to disclose their sexuality in a time where homosexual acts were illegal. The origins were due to Dorothy being accepting of those who are different; including the “gentle lion” played rather camply by Bert Lahr.



Homosexuals identify with suffering. They are a persecuted group who have to fight for their rights, and undergo a multitude of hardships. The outcasts of society, they understand and support underdogs, which with all the personal troubles of Garland is distinctly apt. She’s been through the fire and came out the other side stronger, and more resiliant – a commodity gay men admire, and wish to replicate.

Garland always had a tumultous relationship with men, a victim of heatbreak she was married five times. Her first adult relationship was well documented with bandleader Artie Shaw, whom she was deeply devoted to and left devestated when he eloped with Lana Turner in 1940. Here she began a relationship with musician David Rose who gave her an engagement ring on her 18th birthday. As he was still married the pair were made to wait a year to wed. During the marriage Garland underwent an abortion at the insistence of her parents and MGM execs. Divorcing in 1944, Garland had a brief affair with film director Orson Welles before marrying Vincente Minnelli in 1945.

Though the pair were together until 1951, and had a daughter Liza, it was strongly rumoured that Minnelli was in fact secretly gay. In 1952 she wed her tour manager Sidney Lufti, and the pair had two children. Following years of emotional and physical abuse, Garland seperated from Lufti in 1963 and was granted a divorce in 1965 on grounds of ‘cruelty’. Immediately following the divorce, Garland married once more to her tour promoter Mark Herron, though they seperated just five months later following physical altercation, and Herron’s homosexuality. Garland met her final husband nightclub manager Mickey Deans after he delivered her drugs, they wed in 1969 until her death just three months following.

In 1947 Garland suffered her first nervous breakdown, cutting her wrists with glass and was placed in a sanitarium. The folowing year she fired from The Barkleys of Broadway for missing several shoots as she began teaming her sleeping medication with illicit pills containing morphine, as well as drinking heavily.

She was suspended again in 1949 while filming Annie Get Your Gun after skipping out on filming and raising concerns about the harsh treatment she received from director, Busby Berkeley. Following this, she returned to hospital where she was weaned off her medication, though it was not long until she relapsed into her pill dependance. In 1950, Garland and MGM parted ways officially after she was suspended for a third time and replaced in the film Royal Wedding.

After being dropped, and her mother giving up on her, Garland attempted to slit her own throat in a second suicide attempt during a meeting with her agent and studio execs.

The tragic aspects of gay identification with Garland has been discussed in the mainstream media as early as 1967. Time magazine, in reviewing Garland’s 1967 Palace Theatre engagement, noted: “A disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual.The boys in the tight trousers prance down the aisles to toss bouquets of roses during Garland’s performances.”

In an attempt to understand Garland’s appeal to the homosexual, psychiatrists opined: “It might be made considerably stronger by the fact that she has survived so many problems; homosexuals identify with that kind of hysteria. Judy was beaten up by life, embattled, and ultimately had to become more masculine. She has the power that homosexuals would like to have, and they attempt to attain it by idolizing her.”


Later Life

The final act of Garlands life began in November 1959; she was hospitalised with acute hepatitis, and given five years to live. The following decade was filled with even more ups and downs for Garland – her 1961 show at Carnegie Hall, was called “the greatest night in show business history” while her following concert in 1964 was lambasted as she would arrive on stage late, slurring her words and forgetting lyrics; in one instance she left the stage in tears after 20 minutes following brutal heckles from an Australian crowd.

In 1967 after a break from the big screen she was replaced on what would have been her final film, The Valley Of The Dolls. As with previous projects, Garland missed days of work, blew repeated takes and delayed production by refusing to leave her dressing room. Her co-stars sided with Garland, shifting blame onto the director.

While all this was happening, Garland was front and centre in the tabloids as they chronicled her every move. From career struggles, to divorces, to substance abuse, the press tore her down routinely after spending years before building her up to be a bright star of Hollywood.



Judy Garland died on June 22, 1969 after an accidental overdose of barbiturates at just 47-years-old. 20,000 people lined up to pay their respects at her funeral, many of her gay fans were said to have visited the Stonewall bar following to drink, and mourn.

Speculation has always been rife as to wether Garlands funeral in some sense played a part in the bar patron finally fighting back against police. With many have refuted such claims, Sylvia Rivera is one member of the riot who advised: “I guess Judy Garland’s death just really helped us really hit the fan.”

Given her legacy as a gay icon, and the coninciding time of the transformative Stonewall movement, Garldand is often analogous with the event. Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft points to the connection with pride, saying that her mother was a “huge, huge advocate of human rights” and that Garland would have found the rioting appropriate.


In Time Since

Since the passing of Garland she has become an iridescent icon in the community, and while there was evidence of her visiting gay clubs, and fighting for human rights, her relationship with the gay community is something they seemed to have crafted themselves majoritaly.

The theatrics of her performances, and the personal struggles she encountered allowed gay men to have an idealised version of her. In a time where gay men were not accepted she didn’t deny or disparage them, but said, “I don’t care. I sing for people!” when asked about them. If anyone tried to speak badly about her fans, her response was simply, “I’ve been treated brutally by the press and I’ll be damned if I’ll have my audience mistreated.”

Gay film scholar Richard Dyer has defined her as having”a characteristically gay way of handling the values, images and products of the dominant culture through irony, exaggeration, trivialisation, theatricalisation and an ambivalent making fun of and out of the serious and respectable.” Garland is camp, he asserts, because she is “imitable, her appearance and gestures copiable in drag acts”.

Her camp work is what she is now perhaps best remembered for, the LGBT community listen to her records, and watch her old films and performances with glee. A ‘good judy’ is even slang for friends, in tribute to her attraction to gay men. However, with many newer icons who have worked more openly in way of gay rights, and reveled in their own campness, Garland has lost her clutch on the audience, sticking mostly with the older generation.

Despite this Judy Garland is, was, and will always be the original gay icon.


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