I’ve always taken ‘The Wizard of Oz’ very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.
– Judy Garland.
Saying that Judy Garland is an important figure in the LGBTQIA+ world would be just an understatement to make; there’s a reason why The Advocate named her the “Elvis of homosexuals“: Garland’s golden career, for instance, has been an immense source of strength and inspiration for Queer folks, starting with her earliest and most memorable character, Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).
Dorothy’s journey from Kansas to the land of Oz seemed to mirror Queer people’s desire to escape from a binary world, full of limitations and judgements, and to seek refuge in a colourful dimension with quirky and unconventional personalities ready to welcome their diversity. In the movie, Dorothy adopted a tolerant attitude towards those characters who were different from her – the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are some remarkable examples. But the figure of the Cowardly Lion, in particular, portrayed with a stereotypically “gay” (or at least effeminate) mannerism, was accepted by Garland’s character without any prejudices. This side of Dorothy’s personality was so beloved by Queer people that, to pay her homage, during the 1950s the slang term “Friend of Dorothy” was used by LGBTQIA+ folks as a code phrase to identify each other without being too explicit. It is also said that Garland’s most performed song “Over the Rainbow” has in part inspired the gay activist Gilbert Baker in the creation of the rainbow flag, the symbol of Queer pride and LGBTQIA+ social movements.
Dorothy’s seemingly joyful façade, however, was hiding a rather sad reality of abuse, manipulation and exploitation: an experience that would irreversibly sign Garland to a slow and painful decline. Every aspect of Judy’s life and persona was constantly kept under control by both her mother and the studio she was signed in, the “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer”. The MGM studio, in particular, was obsessed at giving Judy a “girl-next-door” appearance: she had to wear a painful corset-style device around her torso so she would appear younger and flat-chested; or, even worse, she was forced at following a strict diet consisting of chicken soup, black coffee and 80 cigarettes a day, to keep her figure slim and her weight down. Even with all these restrictions, Garland was still regarded as an “ugly duckling”, compared to more mature actresses like Ava Gardner, Lana Turner or Elizabeth Taylor.: Tthe continuous criticism towards her appearance left a permanent painful scar on her self-esteem and emotional sphere. On this aspect, numerous LGBTQIA+ people empathize with Garland: many in the Queer world still struggle with body dysmorphia, self-harming behaviour, eating disorders and suicide attempts.
The frenetic working rhythms imposed on her furtherly worsened the whole situation. Since Garland would constantly find herself working for 18 hours a day six days per week, she was given amphetamines to raise her energy levels, pushing her to the limits and, as a consequence, Judy would soon become reliant on this medication, along with needing other substances like barbiturates to help her sleep; this dangerous habit resulted in a drug dependency that would trouble her throughout her whole career. Fired from MGM after 15 years, she experienced numerous nervous breakdowns and even attempted suicide twice.
With all the suffering and difficulties she endured – ( among others four divorces, economic problems and traumas caused by Hollywood’s system ), Garland’s legacy is still remembered for her astonishing achievements. For example, the Golden Globe won for the character of Vicki Lester in “A Star is Born” (1954), remembered as one of her most iconic roles after the one of Dorothy, or the Grammy Award for her concert album Judy at Carnegie Hall, making her the first woman to win a Grammy ever. The way she demonstrated to everyone how skilful she was in dancing, acting and singing – despite everything she went through – made her an outstanding icon both in the movie and music industry, inspiring future generations ahead, including the Queer one. Her campy looks, her memorable songs, even the way she walked and talked were revered as inspirational both for future divas and drag entertainers.
Garland’s ability to have flawless highs alongside heavy lows is what pulls Queer folks towards her figure; both Judy and LGBTQIA+ people share the will to show everyone how capable and valuable they are, no matter how conforming to society’s standards.
Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.
– Judy Garland.