Commentary: It was a hot Sunday afternoon in Rosenberg, Texas on June 22, 1969. I, along with my four siblings and some neighborhood kids gathered in the playground at Robert E. Lee Elementary School for a friendly game of baseball.
After an hour or so in the scorching south Texas heat, we took a water break near the entrance of the school where water fountains were available. Someone had brought a transistor radio and tuned it to KILT-AM, the “Big 610,” a top 40 station at the time.
After cooling off while listening to a couple of songs like “Spinning Wheel,” by Blood, Sweat and Tears and “Good Morning Starshine” by Oliver, the news came. The biggest news of the day floored me, and I never forgot it. “Judy Garland, child star of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, was found dead today in her London apartment. She was 47,” the reporter announced.
My 12-year-old self-had only known Judy Garland as Dorothy, a naïve farm girl with weird friends who killed witches. Hearing about her death had a lasting impact and sent me on a quest to discover more about her.
She is the star of the most loved film in Hollywood history. A ballad from that movie was awarded the American Film Institute’s best song of the 20th century and “Over the Rainbow” became her signature song. She was the greatest concert performer of her era and, to this day, any discussion of gay icons must include her contributions.
She was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota on June 10, 1922. By the age of two, she was singing with her older sisters in vaudeville, pushed by an extreme stage mother, who years later Garland referred to as “the real-life Wicked Witch.”
Judy Garland’s status as a gay icon was forever cemented by the phrase “Friend of Dorothy.” It originated from Garland’s portrayal of Dorothy Gale, a girl trying to find her role in society, in The Wizard of Oz.
“Gay men’s recognition of a fellow outsider certainly refers to the woman who is the Momma of all gay icons — Judy Garland. It’s no coincidence that ‘Friend of Dorothy’ has long been a code for being gay, as the phrase indicates gay men’s veneration not only of Garland, but particularly of the early role that brought her so much attention. Dorothy Gale’s journey from Kansas to Oz mirrored many gay men’s desires to escape the black-and-white limitations of small-town life — where puny minds like the Ms. Gulches of the world dictated acceptable behavior — for big, colorful cities filled with quirky, gender-bending characters who would welcome them,” wrote Steven Frank.
In the film, Dorothy immediately accepts those who are different, including the Cowardly Lion (in a very camp performance by Bert Lahr). The lion sings about being a “sissy” and exhibits stereotypically “gay” (or at least effeminate) mannerisms. To some, the lion is seen as a coded example of Garland meeting and accepting a gay man.
It has been said that Garland’s death and subsequent funeral, held in New York City on June 27 and attended by more than 20,000 mourners, helped inspire the Stonewall riots that occurred later that night — the beginning of the modern Gay Rights movement.
Time magazine would recap decades later: “The uprising was inspirited by a potent cocktail of pent-up rage (raids of gay bars were brutal and routine), overwrought emotions (hours earlier, thousands had wept at the funeral of Judy Garland) and drugs. As a 17-year-old cross-dresser was being led into the paddy wagon and got a shove from a cop, she fought back.”
A riot ensued as gays fought back in one of the first times in history.
Garland was known to frequent gay bars with openly gay friends Roger Edens and George Cukor, who had directed her in A Star is Born. She openly accepted and respected gay people, giving them a visibility, they did not often enjoy.
I’ve probably seen The Wizard of Oz more than one hundred times and it never gets old. My 25 years of an annual “Judy Garland Christmas Party” are legendary. It was my way of sharing what I enjoyed about the star, especially with younger people.
Sometimes when I’m feeling a little low, I’ll listen to Judy at Carnegie Hall, or watch one of her interviews from the 1960’s. Garland had an incredible wit and was often called the funniest woman in show business. Lucille Ball said, “I was only funny because the writers gave me funny things to do. You know who was really funny? Judy Garland,” Ball added, “Judy Garland was the most naturally funny woman in Hollywood. In fact, Judy Garland made me look like a mortician.”
In a world where good friends are hard to find and lifelong friends even harder, Judy has always been there. From the first time I saw her on our black and white TV screen, through 25 years of Christmas parties to today. Judy, thank you for being a friend and happy 100th birthday.