Judy Garland & Queer Fandom

Judy Glitter Rainbow

Are you a Friend of Dorothy? When I first heard of this term – a secret nod between queers – I was thrilled. I love Judy Garland and The Wizard Of Oz so frikkin much and this is a thing?!?!?! A queer thing? How simply wonderful and lovely!

Now, there’s an alternate theory that the Dorothy in question is not Dorothy Gale but Dorothy Parker – wit, sitter at round tables and ally to the gays… whatever the origin, I’d argue that when people use and hear the term now, they associate it with Wizard of Oz/Garland and may not even know about the Parker reference. And aren’t the original ‘Friends of Dorothy’ those three sissies she picks up along the Yellow Brick Road? There we go.

judy-garland-dorothy

The first time I heard the phrase was when I was told about a gay café called A Friend Of Dorothy that had opened in Bristol. I’d just returned to my home town after a few years away and to find out this existed, well, it felt like it was all meant to be. There’s no place like home. So I went along. I expected to be welcomed into an emerald and ruby sanctuary, as gay and camp as it comes, full to brimming with glittering queers who were massive Garland fans, wearing gingham or pink tulle gowns, perhaps. Well, I was a tad disappointed when I went in and found a very small, fairly blank, fairly empty space with a couple of pieces of Oz memorabilia (a clock and a teapot, I recall) and really, really badly done weird Oz murals in the toilet area. But of course, give ‘em a break girl. Who has the money for these things? It was obviously someone’s dream and they had a friend who could (badly) do (weird) murals, probably about forty quid or so to buy some Oz stuff, and a hope that if you build it they will swishily come. I don’t remember how long it lasted but as I only went that once for an awkward cup of tea, I can’t grumble that it quickly disappeared.

Now, I know that the phrase ‘A Friend Of Dorothy’ doesn’t have to mean you’re necessarily a fan of Dorothy, but it is because of this café that I forever associate ‘A Friend Of Dorothy’ not only with a clandestine queer shorthand, but also with queer fandom for Oz, Dorothy and with Judy.

This wasn’t, of course, the first time I knew of the connection between Judy and The Gays. I had fallen hard and fast for the work of Richard Dyer when I was at film school. Here was someone writing about all the people I adored (Marilyn, Judy, Crawford, Monty Clift etc), writing about queerness in movies, and who was an academic exploring the power of being a fan and what those we love mean to us. And writing about gay fandom. I was in heaven. There’s no place like home. Dyer wrote what is perhaps my favourite of his works: the essay ‘Judy Garland And Gay Men’. There is such an equal sense of affection, passion and deep intelligence in Dyer’s writing that it was always going to be Crush City. But that he’s writing about people that I love too? Be still my beating gay lil heart. I may have been in my twenties by this point but these were still my formative queer years.

'Not In Kansas Anymore' – a gay greetings card by Warren Fricke (1982), featured in Dyer’s essay
‘Not In Kansas Anymore’ – a gay greetings card by Warren Fricke (1982), featured in Dyer’s essay

I don’t think it occurred to me at the time to question why it was all about the gay men. Surprising, because there I was, a gay/bi/queer/lez woman who loved Judy and could recognise and identify with pretty much everything he was writing about. The idea of gay men and camp, gay men and divas etc is so ingrained that it is so rarely questioned. This is something I return to again and again but it needs to be said again and again, because it is still done again and again. What about the queer women and the queer people who fall outside of, and/or reject that restrictive binary? ‘Friends of Dorothy’ may be neutral on the surface of it, but you just know that when people use the term or refer to it, Dorothy’s friends are gay men.

That isn’t to say that Judy Garland and Gay Men isn’t a thing, of course it is. Just as (some) gay men’s love of divas is a thing and (some) gay men’s love of and embodiment of camp is a thing. I get it: it’s a subcultural trope and for the longest time (and still in a lot of ways) the subcultures of men, women and trans* were separate. And the men have had the loudest voices when it comes to camp, divas and Judy Garland. I’m hoping that my big mouth will redress the balance some.

Dyer Heavenly Bodies

I have to say, Dr Dyer does often address male privilege and gay male misogyny in his work. He’s aware of, and calls out, that shit all the time. Because he’s awesome.

Why do we love her then? Why is she such a gay thing? This is where the slippiness comes in. Because we can point to reasons but we’re not some big gay blob of Judy love, adoring her (and other divas) for all the same reasons. And whether it is indeed different for men, women, trans* folk, is a good question. But it is far, far beyond the scope of one writer and one article here. That’s why this is a multimedia project and why there are collaborators of all genders chipping in.

I’m going to write a separate essay on Dyer’s ‘Judy Garland And Gay Men’ because it is stellar, important and deserves it. But quickly, here, I’ll just tell you that he categorises the key elements of Judy’s gay appeal as: Ordinariness; Androgyny; Camp; and – wonderfully – her last film I Could Go On Singing gets its own category. Want to know more? Read Dyer’s essay in Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. Want to know what I think about Dyer’s work on Judy in relation to my own fandom as a queer lady? Watch this space, cuz that’s coming soon… I know: I’m an old camp tease.

But for any discussion I raise about Judy, queerness and fandom, I need to ask myself, from the perspective of an individual queer cis woman, why oh why do I love Judy? And why is the queerness of it all so important to me?

Intrinsically and basically, I love her because she affects me emotionally. She profoundly affects me emotionally. She is one of those people who, when I see or hear her, I am compelled. Time seems to stand still, as does my breathing. She is in my very soul. And that emotional charge is an exhilaration that can be full of elation, hilarity, a weathered cynical knowingness, total sorrow. All those things. And sometimes all at the same time. I love Judy for the joy and the pain. It is all pure pleasure and it is all love of Judy. That, for me, is very queer. Emotions, feelings, responses to the world are not two-dimensional or singular. They are layered and they are sometimes significant and sometimes they just are.

There are certain people who – like with Judy – I respond to on a profound level, who give me a jolt of pleasure, and who hook me with intrigue. And I want to find out every single thing that I can about them. And if their lives are or were difficult that hooks me even more. Yes, I am drawn to the tragic… there, I’ve said it. That is an intrinsic part of the appeal of a lot of the people I’m a fan of and (though the topic for another article), is absolutely part of the queer attraction for me.

Poppy Dress

I ask myself: if I were straight would I still love her? I am pretty damn sure I would. But there is something extra in the queerness, a shared, other layer that is about the appreciation of campness and the gay thing. It is partly community, of course, but it is more than that. Because even though there is something very, very wonderful about sharing the joy of Judy, it also happens alone and, for me, it happens on a very much deeper level when alone. It’s so internal, so hard to pin down, so just there, that it’s very personal. And perhaps that’s why I return to her again and again and again throughout my life. I can’t separate that feeling, that enjoyment and that emotion from the queerness of it. You might have to be queer to get that part, I don’t know.

And then I ask myself a very sticky question. If I were full on homo, would it be the same as it is for me as a bi lady? That I really can’t say for sure. I’m not any more or less queer for my bi-ness. But perhaps there is part of it – for me – that’s bi-specific. There’s the elements of Judy’s own bisexuality and that of those she was close to, for instance, that feeds into that part of me. Because if I have to read one more time that Vincente Minnelli was really a homosexual, or her dad was, or ‘was Judy a lesbian?’ I will plotz. And I’m not coming from the ‘how dare they tar them with the gay brush’ school, of course I’m not! I’m saying, there’s more colours on the rainbow than homo and hetero, darlings, ever consider that? Yeah, I know, there was denial and closetedness and all that jazz but actually, in Hollywood, there was far more boho freedom to fall somewhere on the spectrum, and live that out, than there was in the rest of the country during those times. Just read William J Mann’s incredible book Behind The Screen for a delicious peek into that world.

As I write this I think: why should I even have to explain this? Those of us who get it, get it and we can move on. This is all for us who know and cherish that. The lapsed academic in me thinks it’s necessary to explore and then the fan in me says, no… just feel it and express it and that will be enough. But it is a fascinating aspect of a lot of fandoms. We can ask hard to answer but intriguing questions such as ‘do we like this because we are queer?’; ‘is this queered because we like it?’; ‘what happens when people love it for the same reasons and they aren’t queer?’; and many more… What do you think?

Warhol Judys Black Glama

These are all intriguing and complex grounds on which to base an investigation of Judy Garland and Queer. And they can be positive and life-affirming and can give us a sense of self and community (there’s no place like home). They may lead us to debate and question some of the details of these aspects of queerness and fandoms. Not all queer fans will feel the same way, after all. Remember, we’re not a homogenous homo blob. It’s all such fascinating stuff, right? But there is another reason to talk about it, to declare it and to acknowledge the importance of the queer aspects of Judy’s legend and fandom. You see, some people have a problem with it being said that Judy had a large queer following. They actively and very vocally object to the very suggestion. They find it offensive. What is that about?

It all comes down to one simple thing, darlings – homophobia. I see no other reason whatsoever to object to discussions on, and celebrations of, Judy Garland’s queer fans, queer appeal and queerness.

And the plot thickens… some of the objectors are actually queer themselves. So, what’s going on there? As with most discriminatory practices, homophobia can be internalised. I understand wanting to reject stereotypes. I’ve heard some gay men objecting to the idea that being gay automatically makes you a Judy Garland fan and others that their fandom of Judy is because they are gay. I understand the personal, individual dismissal. But it cannot be denied that there is a history and a contemporary interest and love for Judy from a fanbase that is queer. That she has been celebrated and embraced by gay culture and gay fans. It’s there. It exists. I can personally attest to it from my own fandom and that from many, many queer people I know. It’s a fact. Get the fuck over it.

Judy audience

But there is something deeper and more troubling about the objections to discussions about Judy and her gay fans and audience – it’s as if it’s a slur on her and her fans. What’s offensive about gay people and their appreciation of someone? Where’s the negative there? The fact that they are gay? Homophobia. Let me state right here: I am not saying that the whole of Judy’s fandom is gay. That would be ridiculous. Yet, that’s what the kneejerks shout in ‘defence’ of the straight fans. I’ve heard: ‘look at the crowds at her funeral. Look how diverse they are’. No one is saying her entire fanbase is gay. But let’s view this from another angle. As I wrote in my article on Judy’s funeral and the ‘Judy started Stonewall’ trope, for many queer Judy fans who attended the funeral and who recognised their fellow queers in the masses of mourners in the crowds, this was the biggest gathering of queer people they had ever experienced. Not that the whole crowd was gay – but there were a lot more queer people there than they would ever normally experience in one space. How profound is that? There’s no place like home. This was an era where to be queer was illegal. And it meant constant persecution, discrimination, threat of jail and/or death (as it still does today to some degree, all over the world, never forget). The only spaces to gather then were underground, secret places that could be raided at any second. Judy’s funeral was a public space where people were coming together for a collective reason: to mourn the loss of Judy Garland. And there were thousands of people mourning her. And within those thousands were a significant amount of queer people. That was a life-changing realisation for some in that crowd. They were not alone. How wonderful is that? If you object to that fact, attested to by queer people who were there, then you need to do work on your homophobia.

Judy Garland funeral crowd

Judy’s death, the tales from those who were gay and in the crowd, along with her association with Stonewall, are deeply significant and important for those of us who are queer and Judy fans. They’re a vital part of queer history, period. And hell, we have a right to stand up and be proud, queer Judy fans and not have to put up with someone moaning about how sick they are of Judy being associated with gay fans. You know what I’m fucking sick of? Homophobia. And homophobes whining.

There are those who object to the fact that Judy’s concerts were also a space where large numbers of queer people were gathered.

Judy Eartha

When I was a kid, still making sense of my own sexuality and what it meant in the world, I went to see Eartha Kitt in concert. I was out of my mind excited to see this amazing performer. She was stunning, warm, grateful, superb, funny, heartbreaking, wonderful; everything you’d imagine her to be. That concert was an incredible experience but not just because I was witnessing a legendary star in her element: the audience blew me away. It was the first time I’d been in an audience that was mostly made up of gay men. I realised it very quickly; even at that young age I could tell. There is no place like home, darlings. The collective adoration for the woman on stage and her reciprocal love just kissed my soul. She flirted, she winked, she played up her campness because she knew. And I knew and it changed my life. And I never get over that warmth and community when in an audience that is largely gay. Like when I was a teenager and I saw Etta James and the front few rows were all obviously dykes and she flirted with us (revelation). All the times I’ve seen Liza and the queer energy was palpable. Dolly singing to the drag queens. Babs and her controlled but camp gestures, knowing. It’s wonderful to experience and it is to be celebrated not denied or be offended by. If you’re offended: check your homophobia.

During one discussion on this topic, when Judy fans were objecting to the queer focus of this project, someone said to check out the video of an interview by Irv Kupsinet where Judy herself was asked about the suggestion that her audience is largely gay. The person who brought it up said that Judy herself states that she has a diverse audience and fans are just fans to her, people are just people. Well, actually, this interview is very problematic. Because what Judy says in ‘defence’ of her audience is in defence of the straight members of her audience. Judy is offended by the ‘slur’ that her audience is gay. Let’s look at what she says:

(The deceitfully titled video of the interview can be viewed above and here)

IK: Time magazine, in a recent story, said that Judy Garland for some reason – which was not clear to me – attracts a lot of homosexuals in her audience

JG: I think that’s the most ridiculous thing because I have, in my audiences I have little children, you know from seeing The Wizard of Oz. And I have – strangely enough – I have many teenagers. And then, people my age. And the woman who [wrote that] was really quite unhappy that I was a hit. And she also had, she had a few problems with her homo – talk about homosexuals, well she… well she was a fella shall we say

IK: She’s a jolly good fella. But this is an unusual charge I’ve never heard levelled, describing an audience

JG: Well, I don’t mind, you know, for so many years I’ve been misquoted and unusually treated by the press, but I’ll be damned if I’ll have my audience mistreated

Judy could have just said, ‘look, my audience is made up of all kinds of people and I love them all’. That would have given the space for a reading where she was including everyone in her audience – those who are gay and those who are not. Instead she says this is a slur she won’t stand for and labels the journalist who made the observation as a dyke with issues.

In case anyone thinks I’m unfairly reading into what Judy said in that interview, she wasn’t always this subtle with her homophobia (not that it’s actually that subtle for anyone who’s borne the brunt of homophobia). In John Meyer’s Heartbreaker he writes of his getting Judy a $100 a night gig at the club Three, owned by Mary McCarty. Judy tells Meyer that she worked with McCarty when they were vaudeville kids and says Mary’s a dyke. Judy then helpfully explains the nuances of her homophobia saying that she doesn’t mind ‘gentlemen who have nnn problems’ (what a way to put it) but it’s the dykes she has issues with, recounting an incident where she was groped by an over-zealous fan. Obviously that incident was not ok but one woman doesn’t represent all lesbians just as MGM-head Louis B Meyer didn’t represent all straight men when he constantly grabbed teenage Judy’s boob. But there we have it. And before there’s a collective Good Fan cry of ‘you can’t trust the guy who wrote that book!’, Meyer’s memoir comes with a CD with a recording of that exact conversation. You can hear her say all of that with your very own ears. I’m sure it was flirty banter, her telling more of her hilarious stories and all, but gay men and lesbians are the brunt of it and certainly slurred in the same way as she slurs the reporter who dared to suggest there were a lot of homosexuals in a Judy Garland audience.

Judy and good friend Noel Gay As Blazes Coward
Judy and good friend Noel Gay As Blazes Coward

I’m imagining the Good Fan defence of Judy’s opinions in this instance – she was groped by a woman, of course it put her off as it might many people who endured such a traumatic incident. Forget, for a moment, all the alleged relationships with women Judy was said to have had herself. It wasn’t actually just dykes who were the target of her homophobia. Don’t trust what the ex-boyfriend had to say? How about her kids? I’ve never heard Good Fans say that they didn’t believe what Liza and Lorna have to say about their mother. There’s evidence from her own daughter that Judy could slur those ‘fellas with problems’ who made up a great deal of her friends, let alone her beloved audience. In her harrowing yet revealing book Me And My Shadows Lorna Luft says that she learned the word ‘fag’ from her mother; Judy would say Lorna’s boyfriends or crushes were ‘fags’ is she wanted to wind up her daughter.

Liza pride

And finally, on the topic of Judy’s gay fan-base, this from her other daughter, Miss Liza Minnelli. Liza quotes her mother as saying ‘when I die I have visions of fags singing Over The Rainbow and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half-mast’. If that’s not being in tune with your gay audience (down to knowing the queer significance of Fire Island), I don’t know what is.

I am not drawing attention to Judy’s own homophobia in order to denigrate her or her memory. I just believe in talking about all aspects of our heroes and not pretending that they were all wonderful, all of the time. I don’t think that pretending perfection is at all helpful. I have included instances of her homophobia here, in this essay on Judy’s gay fans, because it shows the complexities of stars, fandom, and our lived world as queer. Just as Judy could be problematic about her gay fans and queers in general, she also had a number of gay friends from the time she was a child who were an important part of her life. And she knew she had a load of gay fans. This doesn’t excuse her use of ‘fag’ or ‘she’s a fella’, but is another example of the messiness that is a person’s life, opinions and how she goes about in the world. Yes, Judy’s homophobia makes me uncomfortable. I wish she hadn’t said those things. But I actually love her ‘Fags and Fire Island’ quip. It shows that she knew that she had a very strong gay fan base, she knew she was camp, and she knew that she was important to a lot of gay men and that they would mourn her death. She also had a sense of humour about it – and about her own demise. Away from the examples of Judy’s homophobia, this (‘fags’ aside) can be read as a funny, spot-on observation about her own gay fandom. As a lover of camp and irony in the face of the tragic, I can say that Judy’s Fire Island wisecrack perfectly sums up part of the appeal of Judy Garland for us gays.

Judy Avedon

Corinna Tomrley 2015

See also:

Queer Judy: Garland & The Gay Thing

Judy Garland & Camp

Judy Garland’s Death & Stonewall

Judy Garland in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?: The Musical!

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