This June marks 50 years, an entire half-century, since the death of beloved performer and icon Judy Garland. It also marks 50 years since the Stonewall riots—an uprising that occurred at the Stonewall Inn in Lower Manhattan, then an infamous underground gay bar, where a seemingly normal police raid occurred in the early hours of June 28, 1969. Since homosexuality was still illegal as well as considered deviant social behavior and a recognized mental illness at that time, police raids of known gay bars were routine and brutal. But this time was different; the patrons didn’t go quietly. In fact, they fought back, and they fought back hard—so hard that the night in question is now considered to have singlehandedly jumpstarted the modern gay rights movement that have brought us our contemporary battles for LGBTQ equality. The link between Judy Garland and the Stonewall riots may not seem clear to all readers, but it’s an important and controversial one—and a link that remains relevant and still matters today.
Although Judy Garland is best remembered for roles in a variety of MGM musicals throughout the 1930s and 1940s, most of her lifelong personal struggles began with the film studio. Even though Judy was always of a healthy weight, MGM always insisted she was too fat to be a star and her appearance and image was constantly manipulated by film executives, which significantly impacted her self-esteem (studio boss Louis B. Mayer infamously referred to her as his “little hunchback”). Diet pills, combined with amphetamines that the studio forced many of their young actors to take to fulfill nearly impossible work demands, is believed to have severely contributed to Garland’s lifelong struggle with drug addiction. In addition to being completely reliant on prescription medication, Garland was plagued by self-doubt into her adulthood, and despite groundbreaking professional success, she needed constant reassurance that she was talented and attractive—all of which is generally thought to have been caused by her early days at MGM.
Although Garland saw further professional success in her later years, including an Academy Award-nominated performance in the Warner Bros. remake of A Star is Born in 1954, record-breaking concert appearances, a successful run as a recording artist with Capitol Records, her own Emmy-nominated television variety show, and sporadic film appearances for the remainder of her career—it’s arguable that her dismissal from MGM in 1950 left her career tainted for the remainder of her life. Patriarchal interpretations of her unreliability and erratic behavior combined with her own lack of control with alcohol and substance abuse made it practically impossible for her to replicate the success she saw with MGM as a child and young adult, despite the fact that she always had numerous celebrity friends and supporters to come to her defense. Her struggles with drugs and alcohol let alone a list of failed marriages became legendary, paving the road for her multiple momentous comebacks. From the time she was a bankable star in countless MGM musicals, Garland had resonated with gay men. Her campy performances and musical numbers laid the groundwork, but it would be her personal and professional struggles that knocked her down more times than anyone could count that would make her a bonafide gay icon—and the fact that she kept standing back up after being knocked down resonated profoundly with an LGBT community which had no fundamental rights, were considered mentally ill, and driven underground. In the years before being openly gay was even remotely available, Judy Garland was already an icon and a symbol of strength and resilience for the gay community. She even inspired the term “Friend of Dorothy”—gay slang that dates back to World War II as a way for closeted homosexual men to identify each other without openly discussing sexual orientation. The term refers to Judy’s most iconic performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), a character who has been critically and socially interpreted as being warmly accepting of those who are different.