There exists within queerdom a pantheon of holies—an array of goddesses dressed in sequins and fringe, cinched waists and six inch heels, glamorous gowns and gold-laden wrists.
Diana Ross, Tina Turner, and Lady Gaga are just some of the queens who sit in this parliament, sipping their bourgeois cocktails and lounging in glorious immortality.
They look down on us through their bedazzled sunglasses and, dripping in bravado, bask in the uproar that follows their strut. Yet their most glorious followers lie within the deviant, the marginalized, and the queer. The culture of LGBTQ+ folk is soaked in the songs of divas and immersed in the art of divadom. We are the bread and butter that feeds their egos and plumps their hubris. It’s the queers who’ve made divas what they are, and it’s our worship that’s projected them into eternal renown.
“Stupid Love,” Lady Gaga’s recent single, is just another saga in this development of eternal renown. An artist who’s capitalized off deviance, embodied campy glamour, and fought against the stigmatization of marginalized folk, Gaga inspires a form of exaltation that is rarely seen outside itself. Yet the recipe to the creation of a diva is often up to debate. There’s an unending list of artists curating a self and a sound, whose intention in the industry is to gather a following of devotees and be idolized like the royalty they believe they are.
However, becoming one with divinity is no simple task. The prerequisite to godliness isn’t merely winning an Oscar or having an album go platinum. If this were the case, divadom would get lost amongst political exploitation and sold-out toothpaste ads. Beyonce didn’t get where she is today because she could hang with the rest of Destiny’s Child. Lemonade isn’t merely some well-written lyrics and a nice set of vocal cords. Charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent are important attributes, but when Beyonce stepped into providence she had something much more.
In birth, the diva comes out of the womb high-heels first—cries operatic, ego brimming—and strikes a pose that can only be described as one thing: fierce. The queers shed a tear and bow in earnest, in honor of their illustrious new goddess. They bow to her beauty, they bow to her poise, but more than anything, they bow to her fierceness. A word solely devoted to the definition of divadom, “fierceness” is a term laden with dazzling presence and substantial history. In their recent essay, “Tina Theory: Notes On Fierceness,” Madison Moore pokes at a definition and formulates a description worthy of note:
“By fierceness, I mean a spectacular way of being in the world—a transgressive over-performance of the self through aesthetics. This over-performance works simultaneously to change the dynamics of a room by introducing one’s sartorial, creative presence into the space as well as it is to crystallize, highlight, and push back against limiting identity categories.”
A diva needs virtuosity to the point of excess—a surplus of talent that oozes in extravagance and drips in gaudy glory. Over-performance of the self is a necessary attribute, but there’s more to a diva than camp.
Another key to the queer obsession with divas lies in pushback, rejection of categorization, and striving to step outside of the inevitable disempowerment of living in a marginalized body. We live in a country rooted in a white patriarchy whose main goal, it seems, is to suppress and deny those who lie outside of the default. The diva represents a character that refuses to let this suppression keep them down.
It isn’t the femininity of the diva that’s so enticing to queer and marginalized folk, but their world. The prima donna gets to bask in a space impervious to shame. Their indulgence is anointed, their extravagance is worshipped. They are themselves, in exaggerated fashion, and are adored for it. This is something refused to queer folk. Expression of self, for us, is seen as grotesque and unnatural. We are consolidated to a seemingly sinful act, and this sinful act defines our irrelevance.
Divas are the proxy that allow us to escape this oppression. By praying to a goddess that represents everything we can’t be, we’re able to live vicariously through them and, consequently, fight back against our victimization. Divadom becomes a form of queer militancy whose outfit consists of sequins and ermine, whose provisions comprise of delicately portioned caviar and an exquisite bottle of rosé.
It’s further important to note the imperfection of the diva. They are far from the cookie-cutter princesses who receive a happily-ever-after with open arms and a kiss on the cheek. Nina Simone dealt with severe mental health, in addition to the trauma of living as a black female-identifying person in America in the 50s and 60s. Amy Winehouse had substance abuse problems for most of her life and overdosed at 27. Kesha was sexually assaulted by her manager, and, when she spoke up for herself, received backlash from thousands.
It’s true that divas aren’t close to the model of picture-perfect femininity, but neither are they meant to. This imperfection is what draws us in. In projecting their flaws, we are allowed their humanity as well as their sanctity. If anything, divas provide us marginalized folk with a portrait of the reality that comes with publicizing your life within the white patriarchy and trying to keep that life within your own terms. In other words, divas are real. They are just as susceptible as us to the cruel inequality of our nation, but that doesn’t mean they won’t fight it. The sharing of marginalized identities is what brings us queers closer in, and it’s their militancy that inspires us to fight back against oppression.
Lastly, a diva’s essence must exist in perpetuity. What’s so powerful about Lady Gaga, for example, is her performance of “Gaga-ness”. In her fierceness, Gaga morphs into a fully-realized concept. Just as gods inhabit godliness, Gaga inhabits Gaga-ness. She coins an idea for herself, of herself, and crystallizes her identity into a prayer to be echoed for decades to come. In becoming a diva and inhabiting fierceness, Gaga reaches a form of divinity that becomes less tangible and more identifiable—a form of personhood that transcends bodies and reaches into the queer hearts watching her on TV. It inspires them to inhabit, at the very least, a small slice of the self they wish to become.
These divas open the gateway for young queers to be able to better explore their early stages of sexual identity. Their narrative arcs become queer versions of the Gospels, their songs become hymns that praise self-realization, and soon their stories will grip young queer souls with the courage to slip on their mother’s heels, paint on some lipstick, and strut into the limelight fierce and unafraid.
Ethan Hundertmark is a Cal Poly Psychology Junior and a KCPR staff member. He wrote the article. Olive Robertson is a Cal Poly Graphic Communications sophomore. She created the illustration.