The glittery, let’s-pretend world of show biz seems to attract a lot of gay men, whether they’re in, out, or halfway there. And many of them have brought us joy through the decades with their tempestuous talent and irrepressible antics.
Here are my picks for the dozen gayest of all, complete with some well-accessorized runner-ups. I’m not including fashion designers (too easy) or newscasters, just entertainment figures—and I am including some men who were so gay they screamed it, even if they didn’t always say it.
Paul Lynde (1926-82)ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images
With his barbed delivery of a line followed by a wicked little chuckle, Paul Lynde was the epitome of gay—an unspoken shrine to homosexuality back when no one was out. It was all about hints and innuendos. Lynde was a scream as the angsty father in Bye Bye Birdie (singing the bitter “Kids,” though I never understood how he had any), the campy Uncle Arthur on the gay-friendly sitcom Bewitched, and the decidedly off-center Center Square on the game show Hollywood Squares (“Why do the Hell’s Angels wear leather?” Lynde: “Because chiffon wrinkles easily.”) In lieu of out gay heroes, we had Paul Lynde flapping his wrists and virtually welcoming us inside his closet while slamming the door in our faces.
Another fab flamer who spanned both theater, TV series, and game shows was the extremely funny Charles Nelson Reilly (1931-2007), who shook up The Match Game with his gestures and polyester prints. And the other runners up are Jim Nabors, Jim J. Bullock, Jim Parsons, Bruce Vilanch, Taylor Negron, and Queer Eye guys past and present.
RuPaul (1960-)Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images
“You better work!” “We’re all born naked. The rest is drag.” “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” “Don’t let your mouth write checks that your ass can’t cash.” “Sissy that walk!” Enough said? Gay, gay, gay!
Other legendary drag superstars include Charles Ludlam, Charles Pierce, Jim Bailey, Lori Shannon, Charles Busch, Lypsinka, and every Drag Race contestant who ever lived.
George Takei (1937-)Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Having survived early years spent in a Japanese-American internment camp, Takei miraculously emerged not only as a noted actor (best known as Sulu in Star Trek), but as a vocal gay who came out in 2005 and has been blissfully outspoken in favor of the queer cause ever since. With 2.87 million Twitter followers (as of publication), Takei sends out stingingly on-target messages, satirical thoughts (“Trump has offered to have Mexico pay for the rebuilding of Notre Dame”) and pictures of himself and his husband with Pete Buttigieg.
Elton John (1947-)Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for dcp
We’ll forgive Sir Elton’s marriage to a woman in 1984. After all, even he admits he was denying who he really was by entering into it. Except for occasional detours like that, the British singer has always been flashy, trashy, and true, with large sunglasses and boas to match the grandiosity of his incredibly catchy hit records. Writing the score for 1994’s The Lion King (which later became a smash Broadway show and now a CGI remake) gave him a whole new legitimacy, and now, with his biopic Rocketman about to be released, he’s practically as revered as the Queen herself.
Honorable mentions to Freddie Mercury, the Village People, Boy George, Jimmy Somerville, Andy Bell, George Michael, Jobriath, Lance Bass, Adam Lambert, Sylvester, and Rudolf Nureyev.
Divine (1945-88)Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
In a skin-tight red dress, with impossibly raised eyebrows and tortured yellow hair, Divine was quite a sight as the plus-sized villainous vixen in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). She went on to other brazen hilarity in Waters films like Female Trouble, returning for a sympathetic turn in the much more socially conscious classic Hairspray, while also venturing into tribal dance music and other unexpected turns. Divvy (born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, of course) was about to play a male role on Married With Children when he died, barely able to absorb the new praise from Hairspray.
Truman Capote (1924-84)Keystone/Getty Images
The New Orleans-born author had range, veering from the classic social-climbing novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the chilling non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. He also had an inimitable style, that of a prissy, elfin man with a squeaky voice that you couldn’t make up if you tried. Unselfconsciously appearing on various talk shows, he became a wildly popular cultural figure and an inspiration to gays hoping to make it without watering down their identities.
Similarly, Rex Reed is a breezy writer who camped it up on TV’s The Gong Show and as Myron in the 1970 movie of Gore Vidal’s trans book Myra Breckinridge. Oh, and Vidal ranks high on this list, too, along with Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and Tennessee Williams, though none of these writers is as gay as little old me!
Liberace (1919-87)Sonia Moskowitz/IMAGES/Getty Images
Liberace didn’t say he was gay—even when his ex-boyfriend Scott Thorson sued him for palimony—and in fact, he sued a magazine that dared to assert that he was one of us, and he won! What’s more, when Liberace came down with HIV, he claimed he’d simply lost weight as the result of a watermelon diet. But still, this was the gayest man ever in show biz—maybe ever on earth—glittering from head to toe (including his megawatt smile), as he tinkled classical ditties on the ivories for an adoring audience of clueless women.
A mama’s boy, Wladziu Valentino Liberace was also a big queer who, when I interviewed him in 1985, told me a raunchy joke about a “transvestite” with a big dick, a tidbit I felt he offered as a subtle nod to our shared sexuality. Even when he was sick, “Lee” kept performing in an elaborate fashion, luxuriating in jewels, showmanship, and a sheer love of the spotlight.
Allan Carr (1937-99)Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images
Swanning around in colorful caftans, Carr (pictured above on the left) became the ostentatious producer of hits like Grease, though his flops (Can’t Stop the Music, Grease 2, Where the Boys Are ’84) may have been even more fascinating. Surrounding himself with hot young gay men at Hollywood pool parties, Carr was as larger-than-life as his brand, though his job helming the 1989 Oscars—the one with Rob Lowe and Snow White woefully duetting on “Proud Mary”—became legendary for all the wrong reasons. Carr may not have been that proud a Mary himself, but the fact remains that he was gayer than all of Tinseltown combined.
Billy Porter (1969-)Dan MacMedan/Getty Images
A fine singer-actor, Billy has long been out, proud, and vocal. He won the Tony for Kinky Boots, and when I asked him at the time what it was going to be like to play the character Harvey Fierstein intended as straight, Billy gave me an earful; he had no intention of playing Lola straight, thank you. Add his wild success on Pose and his gender nonconforming outfit that stole the Oscars, and Billy is the man of our gay dreams.
Also: Nathan Lane and Christopher Seiber.
Alan Sues (1926-2011)Kevin Winter/Getty Images
On the topical sketch comedy show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Alan Sues was a riot, playing out-there characters like an effeminate sportscaster named Big Al who obsessively rang his little bell, and also a dude who swaggers into a Wild West bar, all bowlegged and manly, only to campily order a frozen daiquiri. Sues was as gay as Ikea on Super Bowl Sunday, though he hid in an opposite-sex marriage for a while, and never came out on the record. But beneath his wonderful mannerisms, Sues was not only gay, he had a gay soul. In fact, he reportedly started feeling that the material he was given to do on the show was homophobic. If he had been born later, he would no doubt have been way more of an activist.
Also: Mario Cantone, Wayland Flowers, and Edward Everett Horton.
Leslie Jordan (1955-)Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
The Chattanooga-born comic pixie is a longtime scene-stealer—from Will & Grace to American Horror Story: Coven—and he’s always been marvelously mouthy as himself, as well. Whenever I chat with Leslie, I know I’ll laugh myself into the prostrate position, thanks to his racily hilarious revelations. And how many Emmy winners can say they used to host the Hookie Awards for male escorts?
Runners up: Ramon Novarro, William Haines, Van Johnson, Michael Greer, Roddy McDowall, Anthony Perkins, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Jonathan Frid, Jonathan Harris, Rupert Everett, John Gielgud, Quentin Crisp, Sir Ian McKellen, and Neil Patrick Harris.
Andy Cohen (1968-)Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Duh. Need I really explain?
A Thong to Remember
Some future icons parade their business around in the Brolesque revue on Sundays at the Bedlam club on Avenue C in New York. I just caught some of the show, which had studly guys like Richard, Puck, and Bobby working the room, from the top of the bar to the moose head on the wall and then some. Some of the sight lines were less than ideal, but the guys—who all started out in sailor’s hats for Fleet Week—sailed smoothly into writhing semi-nudity, as Alan Cumming, his husband Grant Shaffer, and I genteelly applauded. The DWorld Underwear Party that followed was no doubt utterly delightful.
Speaking of male disrobers, the Magic Mike musical has canceled its Boston premiere run, but I hear that the Michael Jackson jukebox show, Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough–which seemed to pause in its tracks while the HBO doc spun its dramas—is coming in anyway. Sort of like a pedophile.