Why is there not yet such a thing as a lesbian icon? I’m not just talking about lesbians who have become famous — spare me your Melissa Etheridges, your Tracy Chapmans. Nor do I consider any of the zillion indie female vocalists who are beloved within the lesbian community to be candidates for iconic status—we all went through our Ani DiFranco phases, and the less said on that score the better. No, I’m talking about big, loud, fabulous mainstream performers who embody a lesbian aesthetic in the same way that Judy Garland or Madonna do for so many of our gay male brethren. Shouldn’t we have that? We deserve to have that! So, in the interest of getting the ball rolling, I hereby nominate Michael Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf, to the position of number one (butch) lesbian icon.
Butchness, in women and in men, is an oft-misunderstood and maligned quality. This is particularly pronounced when the distinction is drawn between butchness and its prettier cousin, androgyny. A butch is cruder, more prone to grunts and eruptions than an androgyne, and wears less eye makeup. But a butch is not simply, uncomplicatedly masculine. Butches draw on a wider emotional palette than your standard-issue manly man does. They feel things deeply, and cannot conceal those feelings even if they try.
Although country music is rife with the male variety, butch women have never really found a solid place in popular culture the way their male counterparts have (although, like feminine men, when they do appear they tend to be objects of mockery).
More so even than country music’s male butch stars, Meat Loaf exemplifies everything that’s grand about butchness and lesbianosity in both his music and his public persona. He’s portly and tender, macho and heartfelt. When he comes in as Eddie in the Rocky Horror Picture Show he seems more alien than Dr. Frankenfurter—the only diesel dyke in a production full of fairies. Unfashionable and earnest, no costume has ever succeeded in hiding him or making him a cipher in the manner of a Lady Gaga or a Madonna. Meat Loaf is not enigmatic, and no matter how much dry ice he uses in a live show, he will never, ever wisp.
Like all butches do, Meat Loaf bends gender along an unexpected angle (he’s not masculine, but also beautiful — he’s, uh, the other thing). His physical presence is one of solidity, even lunkishness, which mean that his emotional depths are unexpected and can sink you like an iceberg. “This is my anger/this is my shame/these are my insecurities/that I can’t explain” he belts and growls in All of Me, (a Ben E. King cover, which is also a top contender for the most lesbionic song ever written). Or, in the song that introduced me to him as an artist, he promises that he “Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” Big Boo-like, Meat Loaf invites the audience’s laughter in many of his lyrics and then tries, gamely, to laugh along — but in the end he wears his heart too close to his sleeve to be comfortable as a subject of mockery. His struggle for validation, his yearning to be taken seriously even as he plays the jester, all speaks to a part of the human experience that most other icons seem to spend their lives avoiding. When you listen to Meat Loaf vocally pouring his heart and soul into hits like “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” despite the fact that it is basically a novelty song, it’s right out in the open. That’s butch.
Okay, so what little evidence there is about Mr. Aday’s political convictions indicates that he may, just possibly, be a Republican. The lesbian community takes our politics pretty seriously, and so there’s no denying that a guy whose single foray into political expression was an endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012 might be a bit of a hard sell. But just imagine a world in which, decades ago, Meat Loaf had gained the sort of committed, die-hard lesbian fandom he so richly deserved. Not only could he have served as a role model for young lesbians and provided a fashion template more creative than that already provided by the nation’s lumberjacks. He could have injected some much needed fun into a lesbian culture which has, let’s face it, tended slightly towards the emo and humorless at times. [Ed. note: HOW DARE YOU] And, in return, a lesbian fanbase could have prevented his downward spiral, diverting him off the path that ultimately ended in Republicanism. Seriously, the man was in Hair and the Picture Show — this needn’t have happened. I’m going to go ahead and say that he only supported Mitt Romney in 2012 because the poor guy felt hurt that the lesbians of the world had failed to recognize him as the exemplar of the butch lesbian aesthetic that he was born to be.
So, why didn’t lesbians embrace Meat Loaf ages ago, when he was in his prime? I blame internalized homophobia—because it makes a good stock excuse, for everything. But seriously, unlike the wild and wooly excesses of gay male culture, lesbians have always seemed to me to be a little bit reluctant to proclaim our identities too loudly when those identities diverge from what the dominant culture respects and validates. How else can we explain the lesbian tendency to hide ourselves away at folk festivals or sparsely attended poetry slams [Ed. note: WHAT ABOUT DINAH SHORE, WE DO FUN S–OKAY POINT TAKEN]? Rather than claiming pieces of the dominant culture and making them our own we take the quiet, retiring route, at times to the point of abandoning our heroes once they “sell out” or get too popular.
Everything that lesbians value, and everything we can’t escape about ourselves, can be found in the career of Michael Lee Aday. We are solid physically and volatile emotionally. We are not cool. We do not wisp. We have spectacularly bad taste in haircuts. We get laughed at. We are heartfelt. We are Meat Loaf.
Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart is a freelance writer who draws the webcomic Tiny Butch Adventures. She writes fiction when she can and nonfiction when she must, and presently resides in Knoxville, Tennessee because fate can be cruel, sometimes.