On the evening of Valentine's Day, lacking a boyfriend to do anything romantic with, I found myself in the basement of The Glory, attending a cabaret night called "Dirty Di's Tunnel of Love". On stage, the performer Fagulous – dressed as Diana – was singing a rather ribald song about cruising in Hampstead Heath, set to the tune of Lily Allen's "LDN". Later, in a reenactment of Diana's funeral ("It was very sad that I wasn't able to attend," quipped Fagulous / Diana), we were handed a hymn-sheet and led on a mass singalong of "Candle in the Wind".
There's no doubt Diana is a queer icon; her campaigning for AIDS awareness and that time Freddy Mercury snuck her into the Royal Vauxhall Tavern cemented that. But in 2019 is she a kitsch joke, a sincerely revered saint, or some combination of the two?
Twenty-one years on from her death, Diana remains as iconic a figure as ever. This year has seen the exhibition "Diana: Her Fashion Story" draw sell-out crowds at Kensington Palace, as well as the internet phenomenon of people screenshotting Diana-themed Facebook groups and mocking them on Twitter. Her status as a gay icon, too, is still going strong.
After the show, in the The Glory's cramped smoking area, I spoke to a number of queer millennials who possessed a genuine and entirely un-ironic love for Diana. I was struck by how often people spoke about a princess, born into one of the richest families in the UK, as a symbol of outsiderdom.
One woman, Evie, explained that she loved Diana because "she recognised her own oppression and fought back against it". Sam, a gay man, agreed, telling me, "She was a bad bitch, she owned what she was about – she fucked off Prince Charles and did what she wanted to do."
Ailsa said that Diana "wasn’t afraid to connect with people whose voices weren’t being heard, and break across social norms", adding, "That revenge dress… bang it out, watch me twirl, watch me dance!" Hannah, meanwhile, described her journey as a Diana fan as "starting out ironic but becoming completely sincere". She said, "Although Diana is mostly considered in relation to queer men, she’s definitely an icon for queer women too, with Charles as the embodiment of male patriarchal power, and her rebellion against that, her journey of self-discovery."
Most of the people I spoke to professed a dislike towards the monarchy and described themselves as left-wing, but saw no contradiction in stanning a member of the Royal Family. One Irish woman, Roisin, told me, "She was a sexy bitch – I hate the monarchy, but she fucked them over!" I'm inclined to agree with this position. Arguably no figure in the 20th century did more to destabilise the institution than Diana – although this good work is now being undone by her regrettably popular children.
But there were a few dissenting voices: Felix, a German man, was perplexed by Diana's status as a British queer icon. When Evie argued that Diana had attacked the monarchy, he said, "Isn't that just giving the monarchy an inverted type of legitimacy? It sounds like she gave it a human face, like Obama with American imperialism. She’s not a part of queer culture." Growing up in the UK, we are taught to love Diana, regardless of our sexuality or political leanings. I’d never considered how odd this might appear to an outsider. Have we really just been taken in by a national myth-making which is, in effect, quite conservative? Felix seemed to think so.
The only other person I could find willing to confess a dislike for Diana was a man called Mike, who described her as "a bit of a knobhead". He continued: "Her status as a fashion icon is retrospective – she actually wore horrible clothes." When I pointed out that plenty of people at the time, including a little known fashion designer by the name of Alexander McQueen, considered her a style icon, he shrugged and replied, "Yeah, but mostly by the kind of basic person who loves Kate Middleton now."
Incidentally, lots of people spoke about the Duchess of Windsor with disdain that evening. She’s boring, they said, she has no personality, she wears bland clothes. Creating rivalries between two women where none exist is an unfortunate aspect of stan culture (what beef could there possibly be between a woman and her dead mother-in-law, who she's never even met?), but the comparison does illuminate something about Diana's appeal. Kate could devote her life to LGBT causes, or wear better clothes, or get photographed sniffing poppers with Troye Sivan in Dalston Superstore, and she still wouldn’t be a gay icon in the same way Diana is. Why? It’s because she's not sad enough: she's too wholesome, too hearty. Has Kate ever suffered? As my friend Emily says, "All gay icons have chaotic energy," and it's hard to think of someone less chaotic.
Indeed, while I wouldn’t describe myself as a die-hard Diana fan, it’s the chaos and pain of her life that I find compelling. In this respect, I’m adhering to a long tradition of gay men lionising fucked-up straight women. I remember watching a rerun of her Martin Bashir interview when I was 11 years old and being absolutely transfixed. Even watching it now, it's an incredible performance, featuring some truly memorable turns-of-phrase, including the iconic "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded." Who among us hasn't wished they could go on prime-time television and mug off a cheating ex with such vicious aplomb?
At one point, with her head tilted down, peering up at the camera, Diana describes bulimia as "like having a pair of arms around you". I still find this line haunting. When I was a teenager, struggling with bulimia myself, Diana often came to mind (she was probably the only person I’d heard of who was bulimic). I would think about her hidden away where no one could hear, in some lonely bathroom in a far corner of the palace, doing the exact thing that I was doing. It was a kind of scaled-up relatability, satisfying a childish fantasy of suffering in splendour; wanting not even to be less lonely or sad, but to be beautiful and adored while being so.
While I don't want to universalise my own experience, many of the people I spoke to echoed the idea that Diana’s sadness – the sense of her being a fundamentally lonely person – was something that spoke to their experience of growing up queer.
Her status as a tragic diva aside, it’s undeniable that Diana made real, material changes to the lives of LGBT people – particularly through the work she did around AIDS. Nowadays, the idea that it’s brave to shake hands with a person living with HIV or AIDS, as Diana was famously photographed doing in 1987, is laughable. It wasn’t "brave" then either: by that point, enough was understood about means of transmission that she knew she wasn't putting herself at any kind of risk. But in another sense it was brave: back when there was still widespread stigma towards people living with HIV (even by today’s standards), it was far from a fashionable cause. If you were only doing charity work to win public admiration, a charge which was often levelled at Diana, there were far more obvious causes to support. You’d visit a home for abandoned puppies or something, wouldn’t you?
Jim MacSweeney, the manager of LGBT bookshop Gay’s the Word, was heavily involved in the gay rights movement throughout the 1980s. When we got onto the subject of the gloveless photograph, Jim told me, "You have no idea how important that was. At that time, people were getting ill and dying, and gay men were treated pariahs. The press treated gay men as if the disease could be caught simply by being in the same room as them. People had Kaposi's Sarcoma, often terrible warts; there was so many disfiguring illnesses associated with the condition. And to have someone as famous as Diana go to Lighthouse [a residential unit for people with AIDS], even just going there, never mind shaking hands without gloves, was huge.
"Straight away, she’s cutting through the bullshit that you could contract HIV through touch. Even if you didn’t have AIDS, the royals always wear gloves because they shake so many hands. So the symbolism of her doing that was enormous. It made a tangible difference in reducing stigma."
Perhaps venerating Diana as the patron saint of AIDS risks overshadowing the efforts of queer activists. There is a rich history of AIDS activism, often led by those who lived with the illness, and we should avoid depicting these people merely as passive recipients of charity. But given there is so much discussion today about what it means to be a good ally, it’s also important to recognise the efforts of someone who – against a backdrop of overwhelming callousness – really did help people who were marginalised, despised and suffering a great deal.
I was curious as to why Fagulous felt gay people still connected with Diana in 2019. When I interviewed him the morning after the performance, he made the the interesting point that, with her talent at controlling her own public image, Diana was a precursor to the social media age: "Nowadays, we are all using photography and images to manipulate our own situation. You can wear your own 'revenge dress' and gets hundreds of likes on Instagram. That’s perhaps why people connect with her now more than ever."
He also spoke of Diana's camp appeal: "It's about her performativity as a princess. It’s very camp being able to do that. She was almost Joan Crawford-esque: she could lure people in and tell a story." This reminded me of Sontag’s description, in Notes on Camp, of figures such as Bette Davis as "the great stylists of temperament and mannerisms". I can’t think of a better way to sum up Diana’s appeal.
So what does Diana mean to the LGBT community in 2019? After speaking to a number of people, I was heartened by the fact that, for all the talk of her being a fashion icon, or a "bad bitch", almost everyone mentioned the work she did with AIDS. For all the campness, the kitsch, even the mockery, there still seems to be a sense of respect and gratitude towards her. Diana’s continuing status as a queer icon helps to enable the remembrance of an important part of our shared history, and I'm glad to see it.