Yesterday, I reread a tribute article about Heath Ledger. When he died, gays were particularly effusive in praising him and embracing his legacy. That got me wondering, How does someone become a gay icon? Especially when they are not gay themselves. Sure Heath Ledger played a gay cowboy in “
But this isn't about Heath. Or Jake. I started thinking back to one of my first entertainment idols, back when I was twelve. Did all fortysomething gay men grow up gyrating in the basement to the pulsating beat of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”? (Once, maybe twice, I mimicked the rhythm by plucking a rubber band. That part couldn’t be gay, could it? Geeky, yes. Unfortunately, I can't find the original version on YouTube. It seems everybody's got a remix or a hokey, sit-on-the-stool-in-the-family-room cover. Hey, listen to--er, watch--this gay-pleasing version of "I Feel Love" on YouTube. You won't see where the elastic comes in because there is a clapping effect instead. You won't care. Trust me.)
To a kid who was almost a decade away from the club scene, what drew me to a singer whose biggest album was “Bad Girls” a concept album paying homage to female prostitutes? I didn’t know a thing about drag queens back then so that couldn’t have been the link.
I didn’t know anyone who openly identified as gay at the time. I hadn’t yet figured out my sexuality. All I knew was every part of my existence felt awkward. Why did I take solace in all things Donna? Nobody observed my feeble batter’s stance during agonizingly long beach baseball games and suggested that I should stay inside and listen to a danced up version of a song about leaving a cake out in the rain.
Yet somehow I knew. Donna Summer was my idol. I had all her albums and the poster that came with “On the Radio” was displayed prominently in my room.
Right beside an oversized montage of Olivia Newton-John writhing in water with dolphins.
On a surface level, I was passing for straight. Gorgeous women adorned my walls. But why did I hang posters of Donna (and Olivia), not of Farrah? (My parents refused to let me watch “Charlie’s Angels” because they felt it was risqué. Oh, I’ll bet they wish they could have a do-over on that one! Might have even slipped a Beta video of “Debbie Does Dallas” under my pillow.)
I realize I am painting with an awfully broad stroke when I link Miss Summer with gay men of a certain age. Still, I think many of us connected with her. What drew us to disco instead of Pink Floyd? Somehow Summer fit.
It seemed to be destiny how I met my first love years later at a gala celebration to honor volunteers of AIDS Project Los Angeles. As an AIDS buddy in the early 90s, I had to attend monthly sessions with a facilitator to ensure that each of us felt supported as we, in turn, supported an APLA client. During a retro disco dance, I hovered in the background safely mixing with other volunteers who were already taken. When the DJ announced it was the last dance he played—what else?!—Donna Summer’s Oscar winning song. My facilitator came out of nowhere, grabbed my arm and tugged me onto the dance floor. I stood there, feeling awkward—somehow that never really went away—while he rushed off. Moments later, he reappeared with one of the APLA employees. “This is John,” he informed me. “You two really need to get together. Now dance.” We did. And we did.
The love didn't last, but Donna did. She continues to release new music. Some of her songs apparently still hit the dance chart. I find them on YouTube, listen a few times and that’s that. Like all aspects of pop culture, Donna Summer’s star has faded. But, on a Saturday night when I have nothing going on—and there are many such Saturday nights—I will often dig through my CD collection, passing over the ones by Barry Manilow, the Divine Miss M and Babs, and put on vintage Donna. Yes, the cake is gone and I will never have that recipe again, but Donna can still whet my appetite.