The flurry of news stories over the past year might give people the impression that the last stand for LGBTQ rights is the fight for marriage equality… and maybe where you buy your fried chicken. However, the mainstream battles for the LGBTQ community tend to lean towards the interests of middle class adults, not the other cultural or gender minorities of the group overall, and definitely not towards the needs of our youth. But while these youth have been largely forgotten by society, Golden Girls star and gay icon Bea Arthur did not forget them in her final years.
Bea Arthur did not understand how she became a gay icon. "Maybe it's because I have played so many strong women. Who knows? It's fine with me,” she told Octavio Roca at the San Francisco Chronicle (1). Although Arthur is best known for her role on from Golden Girls, Arthur won an Emmy in 1977 for her role as the titular character in Maude. As Maude, she played a liberal feminist who started as a foil to Archie Bunker and spun off to her own series. Maude regularly tackled political issues of the time such as the Vietnam War and the Nixon controversies, as well as issues closer to home, like menopause, spousal abuse, drug use, and abortion.
Playing a strong woman certainly doesn’t hurt in being appreciated by the gay community, but Arthur frequently treated homosexuality as a nonissue, and treated rumors of her being gay as irrelevant, “I think it is because of the voice, but who cares?"(2)
But what likely made her endearing to the gay community—beyond her brazen, strong persona, the acerbic wit of her characters, and fond memories of from gay viewers who watched Golden Girls with their parents as teens—was her continued attention to the LGBTQ causes that have gone ignored by the mainstream. She was an attendee and performer at many AIDS benefits throughout her career, and it is important to acknowledge that AIDS awareness groups such as ACT UP started in the 80s because of the simple fact that much of American culture blamed gays for the AIDS crisis, treated them as pariahs, and at worst, outright pretended it wasn’t happening. This deliberate erasure of the crisis included a government that refused to openly talk about the problem, underfunded research, and overall refused to act on the part of the tens of thousands of lives that were being lost.
Consequently, you could say the community developed a bit of a soft spot for stars who went out of their way to help. Especially for the causes that, in this historical, political moment, were not flashy, or glamorous, but largely stigmatized. Sometimes during the benefits, Arthur sang with her friend and playwright Billy Goldberg. In the video below, she’s seen with Rock Hudson.
Obviously, it’s not just the roles she chose to play as an actress that endeared her to the LGBTQ community, but the role she chose as a person; one who cared deeply about people and became a friend to those who needed it most without caring a flip about whether it was ‘appropriate.’ And so, in this trend, upon her death in 2009, she donated $300,000 to The Ali Forney Center for Homeless Youth http://www.aliforneycenter.org/, a much needed oasis in New York for the thousands of homeless LGBTQ teens (4).
Sure, we have the It Gets Better Campaign, but for a lot of LGBTQ children and teens, it doesn’t actually get better, and just like other hard luck causes for the LGBTQ community, relief for gay and transgender teens is stalled by politics and the belief of some that gays “deserve” what they get. Coming out for these kids isn’t simply about being brave enough to be themselves. Teens can face bullying severe enough to cause PTSD and emotional trauma, and LGBTQ teens are four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. Even now, they cannot even guarantee that their parents will accept them.
As LGBTQ youth come out at younger and younger ages (the average age is now 16, but may land around 12 for some kids), their lives are increasingly precarious as they must survive not only small mindedness from strangers, but perhaps abuse from their families or being put out on the street. Granted, gathering statistics on this is difficult, but about 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ (3).
This is why Bea Arthur’s gift was so very important. Moreover, even after Bea Arthur’s death, her legacy continues as a friend to the gay community. In July, New York City turned over a city-owned property to the Ali Forney Center, which will be called the Bea Arthur Residence for Homeless LGBTQ Youth (5). This legacy is very valuable to The Ali Forney Center, because there are approximately 4000 homeless youth in New York City, around 1000 are LGBTQ, and until this building is renovated and ready, the Center only has 350 beds. The rest of these youth are on wait-lists, still on the streets and in danger (6).
In addition to giving kids beds to sleep in, the Ali Forney Center provides medical and mental health care, HIV testing, food and showers, and transitional employment programs, among other services. As you can imagine, this is a population that has, until recently, been treated as invisible by the media and even members of their own community, and is in direly needed a friend. Bea Arthur was that friend, and hopefully, others will follow her lead by supporting The Ali Forney Center and local shelters for homeless teens around the country.