In their third Non-binary Beauty column, drag queen and writer Tom Rasmussen explores the roles of icons within the queer community
Gaga. Judy. Ugly Betty. Prince. Madonna. Britney. Christina. Little Edie from Grey Gardens. Beyonce. If queers can do one thing: it’s icons. (We also throw a really stunning party).
Icons. Idols. Deities upon whom you model yourself, through whom you find yourself, in whose image you are validated, celebrated and given that rare and precious superpower known as belonging.
For me my icons were always women: Celine Dion, my grandma, my mum, the hard as nails dinner-lady at my high school who came back to work the day after having an eye removed. They were my deities of femininity — ones who showed me that to fit your gender you didn’t have to follow society’s exact prescription.
But as I grew older, and further from that dinner-lady, and further into the supernova that is the queer community, those icons still taught me lots, still meant the world to me, but they couldn’t give me — a non-binary person — that superpower I so desperately needed as a child, that same superpower I still need today.
Until (very) recently I had never seen a non-binary person validated in mainstream culture, and so I latched on to Madonna, to Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her. In beauty we talk about the gender revolution, but the gender revolution isn’t men in lipstick or girls with no make-up on; nor is it a brand which proudly purports to celebrate all people no matter their gender, as long as they’ve got the word gender in there to make everyone profitably aware that “YES!!!! We’re doing GENDER now!!”.
The most iconic thing you can do in beauty is depart the idea that icons have to be accepted in the anodyne mainstream. The most beautiful thing you can do is look inwards for your icons: to yourself, and to your community. To people who are there, who have always been there, whose words and images make you feel much less alone.
And so, as people who’ve never had icons before, we amazingly become each other’s, and, sometimes, our own. The non-binary people I know (and those I don’t but am obsessed with) become the stars I navigate a lot of my identity by both emotionally, and aesthetically. We learn from each other, support each other, give to each other: whether beauty tips, outfit inspiration, or new ways to think about the world, about our identities. And what’s more iconic than that?
In my youth, my two aspirations were to meet Madonna and feel safe. And now? I don’t need to meet Madonna, because my icons reply to my insta DMs (sometimes, lol), they’re at the club, they’re putting on shows and making magazines, they’re my housemates. (Still want to feel safe though, although finding icons among my peers somewhat helps.)
“Wait is this piece saying I'm an icon?” The affirmatively iconic Travis Alabanza types over email. “I deffo don't consider myself one!! Ahaha no way. But okay, let me try and answer this. I think what I have loved in recent years via the internet intersecting with queerness is more people calling each other icons. Like on so many pictures people will be like ICON (flame emoji). And I like that. To me, growing up, ‘icon’ was a word I would use sparingly, on like megastars, often unreachable. So maybe this usage is actually creating a real reclamation and queerness to icons. Like fuck, we can all be our own icon? Our friends can be our icons? That random cool queer kid in the bar can be our icon? Maybe the way we do it is just by being our own icon, allowing our friends to be our icons, and just repeatedly commenting ICON on our friends pics until they tell us to stop.”
There’s step one in how to find an icon when the world hasn’t let you have one. But once you’ve met your icons, or know who they are and have commented ICON (flame emoji) under their pictures, how do you apply that to yourself, how do you become an icon?
“I feel like instead of using high profile celebrities as inspirations, I am my own muse,” Jamie Windust, the brilliant editor and founder of Fruitcake magazine, and the beauty legend reveals. “I am my own inspiration to continue achieving what I'm achieving, and look how I look, because then you're accountable for your own levels of expectation from yourself and aren't putting all your inspiration and love into someone who doesn't actually know you. The other gender non-conforming people from all around the world who are unapologetically themselves despite their hardships are my inspirations and icons as we're all going through the same thing. I think to be an icon you just have to be yourself, and continue to do that at all times, no matter what the circumstances, and I feel very humbled and blessed for people to address me as an icon because I'm just trying my best to work, thrive and survive in this wild world.”
The wild world Jamie is referring to here is the one from earlier: the one which denies us icons, while concurrently living for us and needing us and the culture all people on the fringes create by literally just breathing. The same mainstream world which we can’t see ourselves in. I ask Victoria Sin, the highest of icons, how to keep believing, surviving, when you can’t see yourself in the outside world. “We have to tell ourselves and tell each we are beautiful at every opportunity and believe people when they tell us.”
Yes, we do. Because to be, and to feel, beautiful you first need to be and feel seen. And that is what we, as each other’s icons, give to each other: survival, validation, belonging. Superpowers.