"Why do gays love Lady Gaga?" a straight friend asked me at the 2009 National Equality March, right after the pop-star diva told the crowd that the gay-rights rally was "the most important moment of [her] career."
She's a star, I said, and she's outrageous -- she wore a dress stitched from slabs of raw beef to the MTV Video Music Awards and sunglasses studded with lit cigarettes in the music video for "Telephone." Of course, Gaga has many predecessors -- from Judy Garland to Marilyn Monroe to Madonna -- and indeed, right before Gaga's appearance at the march, the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., burst into a rendition of Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
But it takes more than songs about rainbows and avant-garde fashion sense to call yourself a gay icon. My own childhood obsession with Whitney Houston wasn't just rooted in the pathos of "One Moment in Time," which hinted at possibilities beyond the banality of life in a small town; I wanted to be Whitney -- until it became abundantly clear I couldn't sing at all. (I settled for being a writer instead.) Escapism and aspiration are central to the diva phenomenon, and most gay icons overcame some degree of adversity. Movie producers put Garland on diet pills and made her bind her breasts; both she and Monroe struggled with drug addiction. When an old boyfriend told Lady Gaga that she would never succeed -- and that he hoped she wouldn't -- she reportedly snapped back, "Someday when we're not together, you won't be able to order a cup of coffee at the fucking deli without hearing or seeing me!" For an ostracized group that's been handed a long list of you cannots from the get-go, these biographies offer a ray of hope: If Gaga or Whitney or Marilyn can fly over the rainbow, why, oh why can't I?
Maybe it was just a matter of time before the conservative movement sought to co-opt this symbol of gay empowerment. In August, the gay Republican group GOProud announced that its annual fundraiser, Homocon -- a portmanteau of "homo" and "conservative" -- would include an address from Ann Coulter, whom advertisements billed as "the right wing Judy Garland." The Log Cabin Republicans told The New York Times that they "could not think of anyone who we would want to party with more."
At first I doubted whether Coulter could pull it off. Then, a month before Homocon, the extreme right-wing website WorldNetDaily dropped Coulter's column because she agreed to headline the event. Coulter fired back that the people at the site were "fake Christians," and I began having second thoughts about whether she could be considered a gay icon.
As a glamorous blonde with a reputation for rabble-rousing, Coulter fits the bill in certain ways. Take any of the aphoristic outbursts that have scandalized her critics -- "Anorexics never have boyfriends. That's one way to know you don't have anorexia: if you have a boyfriend." Or, "The presumption of innocence only means you don't go right to jail." These are always delivered, in the signature of camp, with irony detectable only to the initiated. She doesn't sound all that different from A-list divas like Madonna ("Everyone is entitled to my opinion") and Cher ("Men should be like Kleenex: soft, strong, and disposable").
It's certainly true that Coulter challenges expectations of what women -- especially conservative women -- are supposed to do and say. Despite widespread condemnation for calling Al Gore a "total fag" and suggesting that millionaire September 11 widows were "enjoying their husbands' deaths," she's kept her syndicated column and continues to appear regularly on television as well as on the College Republican speaking circuit. Her seven books, all of which have become New York Times best sellers, have sold over 3 million copies.
Coulter has said she is "emboldened by [her] looks to say things Republican men wouldn't." Indeed, the blond, lithe provocateur -- who often sports stilettos and a little black dress -- is often named on right-wing lists of the hottest female conservatives (she's even in a pinup calendar). But you can't remark on her looks without noting that her allure is androgynous. At 6 feet tall, she towers over the men with whom she makes war, and her stature is perhaps responsible for the meme that she is really a man. Coulter has never addressed the allegation, but it's one that's also been leveled at icons like Lady Gaga, who unsurprisingly admitted to Barbara Walters that she is, in fact, a woman.
Among prominent Republican women -- and let's be honest, there aren't too many -- Coulter is no doubt the best candidate to represent a group that's despised on both the left and the right. Gay Republicans can find their own version of swaggering machismo in Coulter's polemical brand. To them Coulter says, It's OK; I piss everyone off, too. Or as GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia told The New York Times, "She likes to poke the left to get the P.C. police fired up. ... We do the same thing."
"Just look at her shoes!" he added.
A key qualification, though, is missing from Coulter's gay-diva application: She doesn't support gay rights. Gays may love Gaga because she is daring and irreverent, talented and successful, but there's more to it than that. She loves us back.
Unlike Gaga or Kathy Griffin, icons who speak at rallies and serve as a locus of organization for the movement, Coulter declared at Homocon, "Gay marriage is not a civil right: You're not black." In fact, her appearance at the event was nothing short of a disaster. When she said that kids should be learning to read and write instead of learning about "fisting" in sex-ed class, a heckler called out, "What's wrong with fisting!?"
By all accounts, her speech was more of an attempt at stand-up comedy than political barnstorming. Coulter talked about "coming out" as a fiscal conservative to her parents, garnering a wave of chuckles. She also, though, told GOProuders that she doesn't understand why all gays aren't conservative, because "as soon as they find the gay gene, you know who's getting aborted," and "you know what the Muslims do to gays."
Maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise that GOProud attendees paid up to $2,500 apiece to hear that they were inferior. Homocon's promotional materials, which boldly proclaimed that "our gays are more macho than their straights!" (as though being a Republican gives you a little more straight cred), were tinged with self-hatred.
LaSalvia's postmortem assessment? That while he may disagree with Coulter about gay marriage, her appearance at Homocon had been a "real conversation." It was really just a polite way of saying that Coulter had committed a capital crime of gay divadom: She was a buzz kill.