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Life Lessons I Have Learned from Gay Icon Divas (Judy, Liza, Elizabeth, Marilyn, Dolly, Cher, Tina, Diana, Stevie)

Dollarphoto - divaOne of the fun things about gay male culture is that "we all" seem to have this fascination with certain women in entertainment.  That's a stereotype, of course, but it has some reasonable roots in reality.  I fall into a lot of those "classic gay" things; I like musicals, clothes, the gym, shopping, etc.  And I'm proud of my diva worship.  It's not like I don't have male heroes; I do.  But somehow my admiration for certain famous women fuels my inspiration.  As a therapist and life/career coach, I work with a lot of clients on identifying who the famous people are who inspire them to be at their best.  I like to look at many public figures, and find positive traits about them that I can emulate and apply to my own life, and I encourage other guys to do the same.

I don't know any of these living legends personally, and maybe for some it's all an act.  But from what I've heard, the following list of gay icon divas have made some wonderful social contributions with their charity work or just their public philosophy that makes them seem like great gals.  Below are some examples of some famous gay icon divas, and what I've learned from them that I find inspiring. 

Judy – Garland, that is.  When I think of Judy, I think of resilience.  Her mother didn't want her at first, and drove her car over bumpy roads when pregnant to try to induce a spontaneous abortion.  It didn't work.  Then Judy worked her ass off as a young kid in Vaudeville, then at MGM movies, then in concerts, then in TV, and then in concerts again.  The lesson I take from her is to be resilient; there is always room for one more comeback.  And I learned that you have to make the most of your talents, whatever we've been given.  And the cautionary tale is that we need to take care of ourselves. Judy got way over her head with drugs and alcohol, and that was kind of tragic.  But she also had a great sense of humor, found time to campaign for (Democrat) John F. Kennedy, and really learned the arts of singing and music.  When I think I need strength, I think of Judy and press on.

Liza – Minnelli that is, Judy's daughter.  Her, I have met.  My lesson from Liza is about fun.  She really loves the "stories" within her songs, and she has a stated appreciation for many things: New York, older people, classic songs, gay men, travel, and Hollywood history.  She inspires me to remember where I came from, and how we are all a part of our families and have "the greats" of yesteryear to inspire us.  But she's also a cautionary tale about drugs and alcohol, because she's had the same problems her mom had.  She's also had two hip replacements, as I have, so she also teaches about resilience.  She likes to say publicly that she got her drive from her mother (Judy Garland), but she got her dreams from her dad (Vincente Minnelli, gay or at least bi). She's also taught a lesson about endurance over time.  And, she is a big gay rights supporter and recorded "The Day After That", an AIDS benefit song.  I think of her every time I'm in New York.  Her appreciation of music of all kinds has taught me to explore new kinds of music to appreciate, too. 

Elizabeth – Taylor, that is.  What I loved about her was that in the early days of AIDS, when her friend and colleague Rock Hudson was very sick and one of the first famous people with AIDS, she didn't give a rat's ass about stigma and participated in AIDS charity events and lobbied the federal government for more AIDS research and social services funding.  She threw the power of her stardom (which was significant) behind the effort, even creating AmFAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.  Cleverly, she used her entrepreneurial skills to launch perfumes that largely funded the efforts.  She also humbled herself in the early days of Betty Ford Clinic, and she taught others that when trouble comes, you just do what you have to do.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going.  

Marilyn – Monroe, of course.  I think her lesson is resilience, especially when you feel like the world just wants to take and not give.  Everybody wanted a piece of her, and treated her like the dumb blonde, even though she was smart.  The other take-away is that it's not clear if she committed suicide, or was murdered.  Her story shows that there is what the world sees, and there is another world that we don't see, that's part of a dark and mysterious world.  We need to be aware of this; not to be cynical, but just to know that we have to live with ambiguity sometimes.  What are the world's secrets?  What are our government's secrets?  What is the difference between what we THINK we see and know, versus what we don't? When the world saw a "dumb blonde" sex symbol, we were really seeing a nuanced and fascinating person inside.  She inspires us to look beyond the superficial and really understand others on a deeper level. 

Dolly – Parton, queen of country music.  She is one of my favorites, but how do you chooose?  Her relentless positive attitude, by many reports, is genuine.  There are so many rumors that she's a lesbian, I wish she would come out, if so.  She is very pro-gay anyway, and she reaches that Southern/Christian/country crowd, which is an audience that really needs to hear that message.  She's also an entrepreneur, and knows the realities of running a business.  She also knows the realities of entertainment, and how she, as she says, has had plastic surgery to "you know, stay in the game."  That's not for everyone, but she also teaches a lesson that you have to accept reality to get by.  Her song, "Better Get to Livin'", was the inspiration for another blog article on my website. 

Cher – Sarkisian Bono Allman, if you must, but who cares? – She is perhaps my all-time favorite, just for being fabulous.  Beautiful — but in her own way, versatile, and certainly enduring over many decades of recording, touring, TV, and movies.  I think her lesson, which helps her to be known by just one name, is that we all have to be ourselves.  We can't be anyone else.  Judy, above, said, "Don't be 'the next' so-and-so. Be the orginal you."  Cher certainly did this, and did so brazenly. That's the other lesson.  She wears what she wants.  She sings what she wants.  She talks (even swears) like she wants.  Her whole message is about self-validation and being yourself, without apologies, which is why I think she attracts gay men.  Her charitable work with the Smile Foundation is admirable, too.  She made Diane Warren's song, "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" famous, and I listen to this on those times when I need extra inspiration, such as I discussed in my blog article about Self-Empowerment Through Music: The Power Playlist

Tina – Turner, not that "other kind" you hear about. Very famously, she is a survivor of domestic violence, from her ex-husband and ex-co-performer, Ike Turner.  She literally escaped from him while on tour in a strange city and sought refuge in a nearby hotel.  After that, she had an amazing solo career before retiring (she's now 75 and lives in Switzerland).  In addition to her inspiration of resilience in the face of adversity, she also teaches another lesson about how some Americans can live very happily as ex-patriates.  "Gone with the Wind" star, Olivia deHavilland, is also one, at age 99, who has lived in France for many years.  I'm not a Buddhist, but Tina credits her peace and success with chanting and a strong spiritual practice.  She has been able to endure hardship, and yet not let herself become bitter.  

Diana – Ross.  Miss Ross.  The Boss.  OK, she's widely known to be a demanding diva and just plain kind of a bitch, up to and including driving under the influence, but I like her reassuring sense of history.  She was becoming famous in the mid-60's with The Supremes when I was born, so I probably heard her music as an embroyo in the womb, so we go way back.  For better or worse, she certainly inspires us all to be ambitious.  They say that the musical "Dreamgirls" was not just about her and the Supremes, but it was actually about how the music industry evolved in America and how there are "so many sounds we love to hear."  She also teaches a lesson of endurance.  I once recently saw her perform a full concert, then at curtain calll, she announced that her father died that day, and she was leaving immediately backstage for travel to his funeral.  I respected her resilience that "the show must go on" in that moment. 

Stevie – Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac (currently on tour) and of a successful solo career.  My favorite story about Stevie was hearing about she regularly visits wounded soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan blood-for-oil wars at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC, and gives the soldiers iPods that are pre-loaded with music from her and others.  I have a familiarity with Paganism and Wicca from working with several clients who were this spiritual tradition, and read about it.  If you listen to her lyrics on many songs, there are Pagan/Wiccan influences, right down to the silver moon (goddess) pendant she often wears.  She publicly denies being Wiccan, but she is "nick"-named, "The White Witch".  I find her kindness to the soldiers, and also her very serious dedication to the craft of lyrics, music, and performing admirable.  She seems a little no-nonsense, and it's all very seriously about the music for her, but someone who is very good at what they do is always inspiring. 

There is no "copyright" on personality.  We can take the best traits of the people we see around us, famous or not, and strive to take a page from their book and emulate those positive qualities to make them a part of ourselves, not to imitate them, but to let their best qualities inspire those same qualities in us.  Deriving inspiration, energy, and passion from those around us helps to pick ourselves up when we're down.  Learning to "think how they think" can help us all in what is known in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT, which I use a lot in my practice) as "cognitive re-structuring".  We stop the negative thought habits we might be doing, and learn to think more like the people we admire.  Every culture has them, but for gay men, we have quite a few very special examples of other gay men, but also the divas that (many) gay men seem to love. 

So, who am I forgetting?  I'm gonna be crazed that I forgot a few right after I post this, but make a Comment and let me know who YOU find inspiring, and why.  Maybe pondering all this will help lift someone's spirits; I sure hope so.


Ken Howard, LCSW, is a gay and HIV-positive (25 years) licensed psychotherapist (LCSW) and life/career coach who has specialized in working with gay men, as individuals and couples, for over 23 years.  He helps many gay men (and others) resolve the issues that undermine your quality of life, and helps you to thrive.   

For help improving your personal or professional life, whatever your current challenges are, consider sessions with Ken for counseling, coaching, or therapy sessions, at his office in Los Angeles/West Holllywood (near Beverly Center mall), or via phone, or via webcam, anywhere in the world.  Call 310-726-4357 or email for more information.

Ken is also available for expert witness work on legal proceedings involving gay issues, all LGBT issues, HIV issues, and issues concerning psychiatric illness or disability, as well as organizational consulting for non-profit organizations, corporations, college campuses, and conferences. 

To get your copy of his self-help book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!,visit , or  It's your "portable therapist" for the challenges you face today in your mental health, health, career, finances, family, spirituality, and community.

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