The top gay icons (straight up!)

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

There are some surprisingly heterosexual inclusions in the National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition. Arifa Akbar reports

What do the Princess of Wales, Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou have in common? They are today's greatest gay icons, of course. A panel of high-profile gay figures including Sir Elton John, Billie Jean King, Lord Ali and Sir Ian McKellen have selected 60 of their most inspirational figures, be they openly lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, repressed or none of the above, to feature in an exhibition opening at the National Portrait Gallery in London in July.

The show will attempt to debunk the clichéd notion of the gay icon as a raging drag queen (perhaps with the exception of Lily Savage, who is included) and show the breadth of figures who positively influenced the 10 openly-gay judges who picked their favourite faces. Sandi Toksvig, the broadcaster and chairwoman of the panel, promised that the "Gay Icons" show would not feature hackneyed images of a feathered Kylie Minogue, Oscar Wilde, Michelangelo or indeed, any other well-known pink pin-ups.

Instead, the photographic portraits include prominent straight and gay people and their friends and family members. Sir Elton, for example, chose his (straight) lyricist Bernie Taupin, who began working with the singer at the age of 17, and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who was not gay but was known for championing democratic and artistic freedom.

Toksvig, on the other hand, said she chose Rosa Bonheur, the fiery 19th-century French painter whose audacious personal history gave courage to Toksvig in trying times, as well as the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell and singer K D Lang "because she's sexy". "Not everyone on the list is gay and some might be surprised to find themselves on a list of gay icons," added Toksvig.

Some more predictable faces in the exhibition include those of the pop group Village People, the writer Quentin Crisp and the gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Other portaits are of people who were rumoured to have been tormented by homosexual urges at a time when it was criminalised, such as the writer Daphne Du Maurier, poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and Russian composer Tchaikovsky.

The exhibition is not simply aiming to challenge gay stereotypes, said Toksvig, but also to celebrate people who have served as inspirational figures, often in times when being openly gay was simply not permissible. Reflecting on her own experiences at Cambridge University, when she was nearly expelled for having her girlfriend stay the night, and in the early 1990s when she came out as a lesbian and received death threats, Toksvig said she used to be "desperate" to find a role model, particulary one who was gay.

"I used to watch Martina Navratilova, even though I loathed tennis," she said. "In 1979, I was desperate for any woman in the public eye with whom I could identify. When in 1994 I was threatened by a tabloid, I outed myself. I received a series of death threats but my life was 1,000-fold better. At the time, there was no other 'out' woman in the media."

She said that while much had changed since then – with greater social acceptance of homosexuality, openly gay MPs and same-sex civil partnerships – many of the same prejudices still held sway in some areas of society. The idea that the exhibition was not needed was simply untrue, she added. "I hope it will give courage to people who are still struggling with their sexuality and to see an exhibition of this kind in a prestigious place might also make other people reassess their attitudes."

Sandy Nairne, the gallery director, said: "It is an exhibition that explores the portraiture and biographies of important and intriguing people through the last two centuries. The title has a degree of creative ambiguity that we liked. It is a bold and edgy show and that's why it's relevant."

Pim Baxter, the project manager of Gay Icons, said it aimed to reach far beyond the gay community and attract mainstream audiences. Only a few of the featured icons have been revealed so far, and the gallery is promising a few surprises when the exhibition is unveiled on 2 July. A history of the notion of the gay icon, written by the film academic Richard Dyer will accompany the show.

Who's your icon? The selections

* Politician Lord Waheed Ali chose Will Young, Lily Savage and Diana, Princess of Wales

* Author Alan Hollinghurst chose actor Joe Dallesandro and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins

* Sir Ian McKellen chose gay rights activist Margarethe Cammermeyer and politician Harvey Milk

* Billie Jean King chose Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson and Nelson Mandela

* Poet Jackie Kay chose Quentin Crisp and singer Bessie Smith

* Politician Lord Smith chose mathematician Alan Turing and Virginia Woolf

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'