My Diva is a collection of stories about exceptional women who inspired 65 exceptional men— who also happen to be gay. These men range in age from 20-something to 80-something and come from England and Ghana and New York and California, but all express their devotion, awe and affection for their "fag hags." This diverse group of women, known in the book as divas, includes all the usual suspects (Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Midler, Diana Ross and even the fictional Auntie Mame). And then there are some divas you might not have thought of, such as Stevie Nicks, Julia Child and Margaret Dumont, the Marx brothers' favorite foil.
The authors explain how their "divas" helped them achieve personal goals, often while living the closeted lives of young gay adolescents. Because many gay men lack male role models as they grow up, they often (but not always) turn to women— perhaps because of their own feminine sensibilities— for the pluck to survive in a hostile world. As each man explores the psyche of his diva, of course, he explores his own aesthetic as well.
Stevie Nicks as a resource
The book's editor, the Berkeley professor Michael Montlack, observes that his own personal diva, the singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks, is considered "too rock and roll to be appreciated as a queer icon." But to each his own. Montlack says he used Nicks as an outlet for repressed emotions that a young boy in a small town couldn't experience openly. Like many of us— gay or straight— whose youthful dreams were deemed "unallowable," Nicks functioned for Montlack as a resource he couldn't find anywhere else.
Many of the essays in this book echo the same trajectory of unexpressed longing for something that one didn't even know one wanted. And as their divas found their way, these men tried to find theirs.
How Grace Paley found herself
Take the poet, Mark Doty, winner of the 2008 National Book award for poetry, for the book. In his brief essay, Doty explains that the poet and short-story writer Grace Paley became a woman in her own image; then he speaks of Paley's five-year-old grandson, who was also allowed to develop in his own image. Paley "took pleasure in her brilliant grandson's work," Doty writes. "It was a mixture of admiration, a sly bit of humor, and absolute matter-of-factness."
And then there is that quintessentially unlikely gay man's diva: Queen Elizabeth I. Even the writer/editor Patrick Letellier, in his contribution, acknowledges that the Virgin Queen is a "nerd's" diva. "She has all the glamour of Audrey Hepburn plus all the fun of a Renaissance faire!" Letellier suggests. But there is more to Elizabeth than that. In the long hours, days, and months of Letellier's grief over the death of a close friend, he thought a lot about his diva. He remembered how she withstood the forces that tried to destroy her: the Pope, her sister Mary, and the Spanish Armada. And he drew strength from her firm but gracious example— just what a diva is supposed to do.
Another somewhat unlikely diva is Julie Christie, whom I night have chosen myself if I were a gay man. Cyrus Cassells perceives the British film actress as an androgynous sunny beauty who embodied the spirit of the "'60s in films like Billy Liar, Darling and Petulia. Yet for Cassells the performance to remember is Christie's recent dazzling turn as a woman with Alzheimer's disease in Away from Her.
Liz Taylor: Working instead of suffering
But what of the stereotypic diva? The Bette Midlers and Elizabeth Taylors of the gay men's world?
In "The Óœber-Diva," the academician Scott F. Stoddart explains that, for gay men, Liz is more than a celebrated movie star. As the first Hollywood figure to speak openly about the AIDS crisis (upon the death of her friend Rock Hudson) and to raise millions for AIDS research, she's more like a patron saint. "Taylor turned her public image around," Stoddard observes: "Instead of simply suffering in public, she worked to end the suffering of others."
The book's final section consists of short biographies of the contributors that I found useful in understanding the larger context of their essays. This collection is a welcome addition to an oeuvre of gay literature that's already sizeable. But My Diva isn't just for gay men. It's for anyone whose dream couldn't be expressed openly for fear of parental or communal condemnation.
Goodness knows it was valuable for me: One of my sons is a contributor to this anthology, so I understand firsthand how connecting to one's diva can be a very emotional and liberating experience.