In his book How to Be Gay, queer historian David Halperin argues that the idolization of famous women could actually be a rejection of a mainstream culture that has embraced increasingly apolitical gay public figures. Gay subculture has instead gravitated toward “strong” women and gender nonconforming people like drag queens. Halperin argues that, in a misogynistic society, these figures often feel more radical and subversive than palatable gay men.
Gay men are by no means universally supportive of the women we claim to adore, though. Dr. Michael Bronski, author of books on queer history and gay culture, described in a 2017 article on the dark side of “stan” (superfan) culture that there is a “long history of gay male fan culture latching onto famous women and then turning on them.” He remembers that gay fans would go to Judy Garland concerts, only to scream abuse at her when she was intoxicated and emotional: “The women have changed—it’s no longer Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. But the dynamic remains in Western culture.”
Garland may have died decades before Spears was born, but their stories feature similar elements: child stardom, misogyny, familial exploitation, and press vilification. Like Garland, Spears’s gay “fans” weren’t always kind to her when she was struggling. Gossip blogger Perez Hilton recently apologized for hammering her with negative coverage during her public mental health crisis. In this era, “bald Britney” Halloween costumes and phrases like “If Britney can make it through 2007, then you can make it through anything” were popularized. In 2018, a fan was called out for turning up to a meet-and-greet dressed as Spears during her infamous 2007 breakdown. He had edited a green umbrella into the picture and captioned it: “Hi, Britney, I’m the ghost of Christmas 2007.”
Queer fans can also be guilty of projecting tragedy onto their idols—even when they have escaped it. This process plays out on the Twitter account Liza Minnelli Outlives, which humorously tweets people or world events that the legendary performer (and Garland’s daughter) has “outlived.” On September 29, it tweeted: “Liza Minnelli has outlived Jamie Spears being Britney’s conservator.” Ben Miller, cohost of the podcast Bad Gays, is conflicted about the focus on mortality. “On one hand, it’s a wonderful celebration of Liza,” he says. “But on the other hand, she’s only in her early 70s, so it shouldn’t be surprising she’s still alive. Recently it tweeted ‘Liza Minnelli outlives Prince Philip,’ but she’s literally 25 years younger than he was, so why are we expecting her to be dead?”