BeastStyle

05.23.14

Streisand’s Gay Sex Problem, and the Death of the Gay Icon

Activist Larry Kramer claims Barbra finds gay sex ‘distasteful.’ (She denies it.) But gay icons have a habit of disappointing their fans. Maybe their golden era is finally at an end.

So, Barbra Streisand—a performer and actress who should be jolly grateful to her gay fanbase for helping sustain her career across the decades—finds gay sex gross. Disappointing? Perhaps. But maybe this is a necessary splash of cold water for gays, too: The era of the gay icon, the old-school diva, is over. Let’s take Streisand’s transgression as long overdue notice of that sad fact.

It shouldn’t be a terrific surprise she felt that way. The actress and singer, with her helmet halo of hair and eternally perfect lighting and just-so camera angles, held the rights to the ’80s-set AIDS drama The Normal Heart for years, and never did anything with them. Life gets in the way. She had The Prince of Tides to make. The Mirror Has Two Faces. Searing movies of far greater cultural import.

It was just an inconvenient factoid, this inertia she seemed to have with Larry Kramer’s visceral play about gay men in New York confronting and mobilizing and dying around HIV and AIDS in those horrific early years when official agencies, doctors, and the government and White House just let them die.

But despite the no-show on ever getting The Normal Heart to the screen, Babs’ homo-faithful remained so to her.

But now Kramer, never one to ignore the potential for confrontation or a row (in the case of helping found Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, thank goodness), has told The New York Times that Streisand, gay icon, didn’t just have a problem raising the money to make the movie, but had a problem with the piece’s gay sex. And in so doing, she joins a strange band of so-called gay icons who have, um, unfortunate views of gays themselves.

Kramer told the Times: “I said, ‘I really think it’s important that after eons of watching men and women make love in the movies, it’s time to see two men do so.’” He bought Streisand a book “of very beautiful art pictures of two men making love, and she found it very distasteful.” Streisand released a statement saying her intention for the movie was “to promote the idea of everyone’s right to love. Gay or straight!” “Larry was at the forefront of this battle and, God love him, he’s still fighting,” she said. “But there’s no need to fight me by misrepresenting my feelings. As a filmmaker, I have always looked for new and exciting ways to do love scenes, whether they’re about heterosexuals or homosexuals. It’s a matter of taste, not gender.”

But hang on, Babs: You’re hardly shy about showing explicit sexual violence in your movies. There’s gang rape, for goodness sake, in The Prince of Tides. Of The Normal Heart’s gay couple, she added: “I was trying to reach a large audience, and I wanted them to root for these two men to get married.” The unsaid part of Streisand’s sentiment is that the audience would not root for “two men to get married” if they were shown to have sex and share physical affection on screen—when, for heterosexuals, that is rarely a concern. And, who does Babs think has been her core audience all these years? Gay men: gay men who have sex. With each other.

Even if Streisand thought she was being strategic in her decision-making in keeping her gay couple as pure and unsticky as two Ken dolls to appeal to a mass audience, her willingness to comply with conservative mores and not follow Kramer’s correct instinct to place explicit sex in his brilliantly confrontational, angry play—a pivotal play—was wrong-headed. There’s something galling about a gay favorite like Streisand actively not wanting to tell the truth about gay lives.

But Streisand isn’t alone: Gay icons have an odd habit of disappointing the faithful hordes. Donna Summer, in a letter she wrote to ACT UP in 1989 and published on the Poz magazine website after her death in 2012, denied having said in 1983 that AIDS was a result of gay men’s “sins.” “Now don’t get me wrong; God loves you. But not the way you are now.”

Summer wrote, “I did not say God is punishing gays with AIDS, I did not sit with ill intentions in judgment over your lives. I haven’t stopped talking to my friends who are gay, nor have I ever chosen my friends by their sexual preferences.”

In 2007, Gloria Gaynor, singer of “I Will Survive” (and who hasn’t slurred that once, in that gay bar you never thought you’d end up in, but you have, and it’s a bit of a mess), told a BBC interviewer, “I want to lead [gays] to Christ and what he has for them. I want to lead them to him, I want to lead them to truth.”

Streisand labors under another burden, which is that she is one of the last of the old-school gay icons. She is embraced for her early sense of otherness (the ugly Jewish girl striving for success on her own terms), alongside her strength, authority, command of stage and screen, and later her extravagant otherworldliness. Streisand has hardly struggled with the litany of addictions and terrible marriages as did that intimidating triumvirate of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and of course Judy Garland. But younger gays don’t seem to desire or propagate that kind of affection, and celebrities today like Lady Gaga overtly court their gay audiences. From being made through a complex system of codes and collective adoration, gay icons today cannot be formed so quixotically: It’s all forced and polite now. Celebrities bang on about loving their gay fans, and boast of being camp. A true icon never begged for approval or appreciation: both were conferred upon them.

My heart leapt when I saw the fantastic Liza Minnelli at the Oscars this year, darting in and out of shot, in cobalt blue, looking wild of eye. She’s old-school. And Streisand, with her hyper-controlled public image, the all-powerful aura, the regal bearing, the riches, the doing-it-her-way authority she has always exerted over her career, is too.

Streisand won’t suffer any major icon-fallout from her contretemps with Kramer. In the old days, there would have been collective gay handwringing over a heroine’s poor words and judgment, a record boycott. But the gay generations are fragmented now. There is less investment and identification in the damaged-diva. Today’s gay generation likes the strength and self-control of Beyoncé and Gaga; the edgy trauma, vixenishly attired, embodied by Rihanna. Madonna set this template three decades ago: vociferous, political, sexual, confrontational with institutions like the Catholic Church, but she was also as camp, mysterious, and unyielding as the old-school diva, which she made gorgeously clear in the song “Vogue.”

Her gay fans will look askance and move on around Streisand. Her position, while jolted, will stay secure in the icon pantheon. There is even a brilliant one-man play, Buyer and Cellar, dedicated to the idea there is a basement shopping center in Streisand’s home, with shops just for her. And bizarrely, of course, for totally different reasons, Larry Kramer is another gay icon, for all his amazing campaigning work when so few were our friends in important places. There he was at the 2011 Broadway production of The Normal Heart, outside the theater handing out leaflets and agitating as you would only expect of a veteran activist.

Last week I raised a silent, guilty glass to icons-old when I saw Solange Knowles and her elevator freakout. Old-model icons are not necessarily good; they can behave appallingly, extremely, and they are cherished for doing so. But gay icons only really flourished in another time, when equality was distant and gay sex against the law, with gay men and women persecuted, living in the closet, in fear. While their lives were not overtly presented on the screen (read Vito Russo's amazing book, The Celluloid Closet, about the history of gays in movies), in the darkness of cinemas, gays did find strong, luminous images of women—never men—to emulate.

Now everything is out in the open, legal equality is a hastening chess game, and things are so much better—and so much more boring. Stars market themselves too aggressively for gay approval, and icon itself is an overused word. But if you still yearn for big hair, drama, the reassurance of a dramatic frock and too many marriages to too many wrong men, do as I do and stick with Minnelli, and the redoubtable Joan Collins. Cher is still indubitably Cher, and Mariah Carey lives as she sings: big and brightly. Outrageousness hums around these women, and an earthiness too: all have survived—and sometimes thrived from—their drama.

Babs, we’ll forgive you if you join the cast of Orange Is the New Black.