The top gay icons (straight up!)

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

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