Character  &  Context

Coming Out vis-à-vis Identification with Symbols: Exploring the Affirmative Role of Gay Icons

Illustration of group of people celebrating and waving Gay Pride flags

My maternal grandmother, Mimi, outwardly presented as a composite of gay icons. She lived her life as the ingénue in a John Waters film, but—like most things camp—was completely genuine and self-assured. It was Mimi who, via rented VHS tapes, introduced me to splashy movie-musicals starring Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and others. Before his death when I was twelve, I remember my grandfather cautioning Mimi against showing me those films, or else I might “turn out like” a family friend known to be gay. I had no idea what “gay” meant, but I very much understood that these larger-than-life personalities were not playing to an average moviegoer. They were playing to me; they were saying something to me. But what?

Research with 398 self-identified gay men suggests that individuals typically think they are gay at age 10, know they are gay at age 15, and come out as gay at age 18. “Coming out” is the popular term for acknowledging, accepting, and integrating same-sex attraction into other aspects of one’s social identity. Social support has proven to be of the most valuable protective factor during this potentially vulnerable period. In the absence of a gay-affirming support network, however, one contemplates the extent to which identification with a gay icon (a Judy, a Barbra, etc.) may help to facilitate individual coming out.

In a recently published article, I attempted to answer the question, “What is the perceived relationship between gay icons and the coming out process for currently ‘out and proud’ gay-identifying men?” Ten participants were recruited into the study after a flyer was distributed via a statewide LGBT advocacy organization in the northeast, and through other mediums. Participants were racially and ethnically diverse. At the time of interview, participant ages ranged from early 20s to late 50s. Participant interviews were video-recorded, transcribed and analyzed. A video testimonial and emergent themes communicate the study’s findings.

Pop Culture and Coming Out from Brad Forenza on Vimeo.

In attempting to discern the perceived relationship between gay icons and the coming out process for “out and proud” men in my study, three themes emerged from the data inductively: Sense of Self, Shared Identity, and Enabler of Coming Out. Though there was variability regarding the icons-of-choice that participants identified and discussed, Sense of Self was assumed to be the dominant trait among all icons mentioned. In other words, participants found solace in the perceived strength and exuded confidence of seemingly flamboyant personalities like Cher, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres, and so on. Almost all participants referred to a Shared Identity (a second theme), or “metaphysical bonded-ness” with their icon-of-choice. Since most icons were female, some participants elaborated and noted that, when they were coming out, there had been no “out and proud” gay men to emulate. Regarding the final theme—Enabler of Coming Out—nine participants believed that their icon-of-choice had helped to facilitate the individual coming out journey. The theme “Enabler of Coming Out” is abetted by the belief that all icons-of-choice were explicitly or implicitly supportive of gay rights; they were perceived to be safe and validating.

Shared experiences and common symbols are integral to the theoretical underpinnings of both sense of community and collective identity theories. For participants in this study, the experience of coming out was consistently abetted by parasocial interactions with gay icons. Parasocial interactions are one-sided relationships that help to explain audience member connections to the media/iconography they consume. While parasocial interactions are less preferred to tangible, social supports like Mimi, they may nevertheless be useful in helping to facilitate a young person’s healthy development.

As I write this, I am many years removed from my “winter breaks” and summer vacations spent, in part, with Mimi. I hope that—somewhere in the universe—she is dancing with her three-inch heels (“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley”) and batting her false eyelashes (“Ding, ding, ding went the bell”), though there was never anything “false” about her. In fact, there is never anything false or insincere about anyone or anything that celebrates the fabulous authenticity inside each and every one of us.


Brad Forenza, MSW, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Montclair State University

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