Throughout the decades, LGBTQ people have used the term “gay icon” to describe a specific kind of public figure: typically a larger-than-life diva whose life, work and allyship has made a significant impact on queer culture and its devoted fanbase.
But what makes a gay icon, well, iconic?
“A gay icon is somebody who represents the determination to be who they are — and [is] unapologetic for it,” Bruce Vilanch, the legendary Hollywood writer and culture critic, tells Yahoo Life. Having an understanding of what it’s like to “be on the outside” is equally as important.
“When we create icons out of people, we're doing it because we realize that they get us," he continues. "Lady Gaga gets us, Madonna gets us, but also, Nelson Mandela gets us. They're all gay icons because they represent part of our struggle — and they acknowledge us.”
Model, recording artist, TV host and producer, actor, author, reality show competition judge and the most recognizable drag queen of all time, RuPaul Andres Charles has been included in the annual Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.
And that is something for which the LGBTQ+ community can be thankful, for RuPaul has been very involved in LGBT activism in the United States, particularly in persuading LGBT people to exercise their right to vote. As a spokesperson for Mac Cosmetics in the 1990s, RuPaul became the first drag performer to land a major cosmetics campaign and helped to raise money for the Mac AIDS Fund.
Sir Ian McKellen
McKellen has had quite an interesting career, having begun as a stage actor who went on to win every major theatrical award in the U.K., as well as starring in multiple billion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster hits: as the wizard Gandalf in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, and as Magneto in the X-Men franchise. McKellen has also had a long and impactful career as an outspoken gay rights activist.