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Ever since the 1950s, when popular entertainment became big business, middle-class Americans, especially women, have had a particular affection for what’s now referred to as “the queen,” a gay man who denies his orientation, makes fun of himself and dresses in gaudy, outlandish outfits.
It started with Liberace, the man all middle-class housewives loved to watch on television. He showed what every man could accomplish in post-war America, rising “above” his Midwestern roots to practically own Las Vegas.
He wowed the audiences of upwardly mobile, conservative businessmen and their families with his obscenely large limousines, sparkling, rhinestone-encrusted outfits, multiple rings shaped like grand pianos and his flamboyant personality.
Liberace spent almost his entire career suing or being sued, and a lot of it had to do with rumors of his sexual orientation.
As the public discovered after his death from AIDS, he also spent his career trolling for younger and younger men, more and more expensive clothing and trinkets and, apparently, never being satisfied with life.
His public persona was so grand and larger-than-life people couldn’t help but love him. But if they ever even suspected anything about his personal life, his career would have been over.
Americans love fey, funny men with big, splashy, sarcastic personalities; we just don’t want to know they have any sexual identities at all.
When rock ’n‘ roll came along in the late 1950s, Little Richard filled the “queen” role for teenagers. He was wild, out-of-control and talented—the perfect antidote for kids raised on “adult” music and ready to claim their own part of popular culture.
But he was also extremely effeminate and quick with the sarcastic quips, and no one wanted to read about him in the fan magazines going out on dates to the malt shops like Ricky Nelson. He was expected to be asexual.
He remained in the public eye for years after his “teen sensation” days had passed because of his outlandish personality.
If Michael Jackson was the king of pop in the early 1980s, Boy George was the queen. He didn’t reveal his sexuality during his most popular years, although he dressed like a teenaged girl, complete with braids and makeup, and sang in a sultry voice with a band full of young men.
When I was in middle school, I loved the music of Boy George’s band Culture Club, but the idea of “gay” was so foreign and taboo, I doubt I would have accepted those songs as much as I did had I known.
Much has changed since then. People are more free in one sense, but if you’re a celebrity, you’re also put under a microscope every second of your life. There’s no studio controlling your every move, but there are “reporters” from TMZ digging in your trash and filming you going into gas station bathrooms.
But somehow, even in this fishbowl environment, queen worship managed to rear its ugly head again, this time in the form of Claymates, people who were strangely addicted to the music and personality of Clay Aiken, the runner-up during season 2 of American Idol.
His soaring, Broadway-style voice captured their hearts, and, for some reason, they didn’t want to listen to the rumors that his effeminate style hinted at the fact that he was gay.
The rumors continued, and Aiken adamantly refused to discuss it, even becoming belligerent on occasion.
Then, finally, after he became a father (and not in the old-fashioned way), Aiken last week admitted what everyone other than the Claymates had suspected for years—he’s gay.
He’s not his fans’ safe, asexual boyfriend who sits around making sarcastic comments about women so they can feel better about themselves, and he’s not a cross-dressing diva who makes middle America laugh and forget their troubles.
He’s gay. He’s human. He’s still a good singer, and he still has the same values he always had.
Even if we think all the attention Aiken’s announcement is getting is a little silly, if it puts another bullet hole in the image of the queen and makes Americans a little more tolerant, it’s worth it.