These year-end lists always break down into two categories: acts or releases that are ostensibly gay versus those that aren’t but have strong LGBT appeal. We’ve focused on the former but have left plenty of room for the latter. I mean, for real, in a year depressingly ripe with celebrity deaths, was there a sadder day for gay men than the April 25 death of Bea Arthur? The “Maude”/”Golden Girls” actress was straight but had that queer je ne sais quoi that can’t be fully explained.
So with no further ado and in no particular order, here are five gay pop culture moments to remember from last year. And one booby prize for good measure.
1. “Glee” (Fox; on hiatus but will return April 13). Under the creative helm of gay writer/creator Ryan Murphy, this addictive new series oozes gay sensibility as it follows the William McKinley High School’s “New Directions!” show choir through the ups and downs of teen life and performance with, as Entertainment Weekly put it, “happy jazz hands and melismas.” The cultural impact is impossible to argue — this year’s run averaged 8 million fans per week and more than 1.7 million “Glee” songs (pop hits and show tune standards re-imagined by the characters in show-stopping episode high points) were downloaded since May. And it’ll probably get even gayer. Look for a new episode this spring that will find the cast tackling Madonna hits. Honorable mention: “Modern Family” (ABC)
2. Adam Lambert performs at the AMAs. Adam Lambert is everything Clay Aiken, his “American Idol” superstar second-place predecessor, isn’t. While Aiken, who, yes, has a lovely voice, plays it uber-safe with bland inspirational pablum aimed at the demographic that keeps the makers of mom jeans in business, Adam Lambert, this year’s “Idol” runner-up, is edgy and in your face. Though he waited until after his “Idol” fate was sealed to come out (it took Aiken years), Lambert is an unabashedly gay celebrity whose openness, even in 2009, was refreshing. Lambert drew criticism for his Nov. 22 American Music Awards performance in which he kissed his male keyboardist and indulged in some highly sexualized crotch/face action with another supporting player. Love him or hate him, Lambert has to be applauded for exposing the blatant homophobia evident in the fallout. Yeah, Madonna’s 2003 VMA kiss with Britney caused some commotion but it was deemed “safe” by the media powers that be because everybody knows both Brit and Madge are straight. It was all for show. Who knows what Lambert and his bandmates do after the show but the possibility that they might actually kiss other boys offstage suddenly makes it offensive. There’s also the reverse-sexist fact that the straight world is less shocked by girl-on-girl action than male/male. But that’s another column. For now, we’ll just applaud Lambert’s sexy stage moves and rejoice that finally, for the first time since Freddie Mercury, we have a gay rock star who can be equally convincing as both rock god and gay man. Honorable mention: Janet Jackson performing “Scream” at the VMAs in September.
3. Lady Gaga. Though her hit album “The Fame” dropped in 2008 (it was re-released this year with bonus cuts), this year felt like the year Gaga came into her own as a mega-dominating force both in the mainstream pop culture zeitgeist and to a legion of gay fans who embraced her with an across-the-board enthusiasm that was reminiscent of, well, every performer Gaga’s ripped off from Madonna to Gwen Stefani to Grace Jones. But as derivative as she is, time, lest the naysayers fear, will surely test her mettle (Madge, of course, was dismissed as a squeaky-voiced Marilyn Monroe clone early on). And Gaga deserves the gay brownie points she’s earned by acknowledging her bisexuality and squeezing in appearances at the HRC dinner and this fall’s National Equality March. It’s nice to have a dance diva who actually sleeps with her own sex for a change. Honorable mention: Rihanna “Rated R”
4. Death of Bea Arthur. Yeah, we knew she was getting up there, but it didn’t seem possible she was just a few years shy of 90. Perhaps it was because Arthur didn’t become a household name until middle age (she was already 50 when “Maude” debuted in 1972). Or perhaps it was because we kind of had it in our heads that Estelle Getty, who died last year, was older because she’d been so convincing playing Arthur’s mother on “The Golden Girls” (Arthur, ironically, was a year older than Getty). Whatever the reason, it was still something of a shock when the news came in April that Arthur had succumbed to a cancer nobody knew she had. Not Michael Jackson shocking, of course, but a jolt nonetheless. Suddenly in the space of barely a year, half the “Golden Girls” cast is dead. If there was a silver lining to the cloud, it was seeing Arthur’s “Girls” co-star Betty White, with whom she had a sometimes icy relationship, remember her so fondly. Honorable mention: Death of Farrah Fawcett.
5. Neil Patrick Harris becomes the go-to guy for award shows. Yeah, we’ve loved Harris since his “Doogie” days. And unlike, oh, say the aforementioned Clay Aiken, Harris was never a celebrity we just knew was gay all along. When he came out in 2006, it was just one of those nice turn of events that felt right. But what had us cheering this year were his witty and urbane appearances hosting two big-time award shows. The double whammy of having him host both the Tonys in June and the Emmys in September brought nearly the same kind of pride we felt when Ellen hosted the Oscars in 2007. Yes, there’s room for heightened gay visibility but having one of our own so front and center brings the same kind of pleasure we feel watching Barney Frank on the Sunday morning talk shows. Out best and brightest, regardless of their arenas, are no longer held back solely because of their sexual orientation. Honorable mention: T.R. Knight leaves “Grey’s Anatomy” after seeing his role drastically reduced.
And just to indulge our inner cattiness, one pop culture moment that showed great promise but bombed: Return of VH-1 “Divas” in September. It sounded like a good idea. Who couldn’t resist the idea of returning to a series that brought us such unforgettable moments as Aretha Franklin and Carol King duetting on “Natural Woman” (while heavyweights like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey were reduced to backup singers), RuPaul performing “I’m Coming Out” on the Diana Ross tribute edition in 2000 or Stevie Nicks joining the Dixie Chicks on their cover of “Landslide”? But for a show famous for attracting big names like Whitney Houston, Cher and Tina Turner, this year’s return after a five-year hiatus felt anti-climactic. Sure, former “Idol” contestants Jordin Sparks, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson are great singers but when these newbies are joined by teenybopper Miley Cyrus as the headliners, it’s a sad day in pop culture. Perhaps guests Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow, who ended up stealing the show, are too earthy to be Divas headliners, but it would have made for a far more interesting show.