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Judy Garland and the Fading Queer Icons of Yesteryear

What does it mean that Gen Z gay men such as myself are missing the ‘Judy gene’?

There is a scene in the new Judy Garland biopic, Judy, where the legendary singer (played by Renée Zellweger) shares an impromptu dinner with two gay men in their London flat. It’s pre-Stonewall, and being gay is still both taboo and illegal. Within less than a year, Garland would die, just days before the seminal 1969 riots at the cornerstone of the modern gay rights movement.

At this point in her life, the Wizard of Oz legend’s rainbow has faded; her beloved celebrity status is nearly dead. She’s in London for a five-week Talk of the Town series to make enough money to purchase an L.A. home for herself and her two youngest kids, Lorna and Joey. Her eldest daughter, Liza Minnelli, is on her own, briefly seen at a party and on the cusp of her own stardom. 

Back in the flat, Judy commiserates with one of the gay men while his partner sleeps. They talk about their shared loneliness. It’s a tender, sweet moment of a campy, yet tragic, white gay man fawning over his equally melodramatic idol who fawns right back at him. They laugh. They cry. They sing “Get Happy.”

I expected Judy to have some acknowledgement of Garland’s status as an icon for the queer community. And this scene, I recognized, is when gay men like me are supposed to feel represented. But I had to force my eyes to water. 

Forgive me, but I just don’t have the “Judy gene.”

I’m sheepish to admit it. Garland is the pop culture symbol of gay pride — inspiration to triumph over tragedy and to remain fabulous while doing so. Previous generations of gay men fought for my right to bond with my grandmother over queer cultural touchstones, and here I am, entirely ambivalent about their icon.

The phrase “Judy gene” was popularized by bloggers Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez of TomandLorenzo.com. As Gen Xers, they grew up on the Judy cusp, aware of her larger-than-life impact on those who adored her before her death, but they never fawned over the star, even as her gay legacy grew in the 1970s and 1980s. About 12 years ago, the duo announced in a long lost blog post that they didn’t have the Judy gene. Not surprisingly, they took some flak for it.

“We got a lot of angry responses from gay men who thought we were doing her a disservice,” Fitzgerald tells me. “There are some men in our age group who worship her as if they knew her when she was alive, but nobody from our generation did.” 

The same is obviously true for me, too. Case in point: Garland died 28 years before I was born. Still, I can’t shake the guilt that if I don’t adore Judy, I’m doing a disservice to my gay ancestors.

That said, we Gen Z gays were raised with a different set of idols. Even in the Land of Oz, my heart lies with Idina Menzel and Wicked — the first musical and camp artifact I ever saw. Along those lines, I know more about which drag queen played classic film stars like Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Little Edie in snatch game on RuPaul’s Drag Race than I do about the icons they’re emulating.

So, again, am I an asshole for seeing Judy as simply the George Washington of queer icons — a figure worth studying, but distinctly irrelevant to my day-to-day life?

In their review of Judy, TomandLorenzo considers how to appreciate the icon even if they’ve never owned one of her records. “It’s easy to look at Judy as this tragic figure. She certainly had tragedy in her life, especially with how it ended of course [she died on the toilet from a fatal drug overdose at age 47]. But when you put her alongside all the other gay icon divas, the through-line isn’t pain. It’s overcoming pain,” Fitzgerald says.

That’s the reason my personal gay idols, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, are so dear to me. Both live dramatically on- and off-stage. Both had failed engagements. Both were expected to perform while battling trauma: Gaga’s battle with fibromyalgia and lasting effects of her sexual assault; Grande’s tour while reeling from ex-boyfriend Mac Miller’s death and the Manchester bombing at her 2017 concert that killed 23 people. All the while, they continue to deliver jaw-dropping performances and singles. I love them for their talent, but I also love them for overcoming the odds stacked against them.

Which is maybe why, as I watched Judy, it wasn’t the scene with the gay men that made me gasp. It was watching Zellweger lose herself in a character who paralleled a lot of what she herself has been through in recent years — great acclaim and public adulation, followed by an incredible amount of ridicule and hate, before triumphing to deliver a stunning rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” 

And so, I cried when Judy ended, not because I felt seen. I felt for Zellweger, making a comeback with such a powerhouse performance. Maybe, too, that’s all gays like me and Tom and Lorenzo needed to see to finally understand Garland’s legacy. “Renée Zellweger gave such an amazing performance in the film, it made me come home and do some research,” Lorenzo Marquez says. “The movie definitely changed my mind about Judy.”

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