Is Dorothy Our Hero?

© Warner Home Video

Of all the myths that surround the Stonewall Rebellion, the one that fascinates me most is that the uprising—which took place in late June, 1969—was somehow related to Judy Garland’s death, which happened on June 22, 1969, six days before the police raid of the Stonewall Inn that set off the demonstrations. The connection is purely apocryphal, and in fact, some of the activists who participated have denied any connection between Garland’s death and the riots. It’s a controversial theory, one that even The Washington Post reported on in Kerry Lauerman’s article “Was Stonewall sparked by Judy Garland’s death? Inside the riots’ contested history.”

While Garland was, and still is, an important figure of gay camp culture, she probably wasn’t the inspiration for the rebellion. But it’s easy to see why the myth persists. The coincidence of her death and the historical event credited for launching the modern queer rights movement happening within a week of each other feels too important not to be connected. For Garland-philes, her death should be a call to arms. After all, she was a figure so beloved by queer men because she, like them, suffered. It’s a time-worn idea: Gay guys who love the embattled, fragile, and fraying divas because they see themselves in their pain.

As a queer man growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, I was supposed to be inspired by Madonna. Where Garland was vulnerable and on the seeming edge of self-destruction at any moment, Madonna was the muscular, titanium-plated amazon. For a lot of us, coming-of-age gay in the 1980s meant being political and militant. We didn’t want to “blend in,” nor were we trying to convince straight people that we were “just like them.” ACT UP and Queer Nation both took on the kind of explosive activism of the Stonewall rioters, and our myopia made us dismiss the groundwork of those that came before; for many of us, Garland’s teetering, quaking vulnerability was antithetical to the new queer of the 1980s. To many, her vulnerability and self-destruction no longer felt relevant, and tying queer culture to a woman who was barely hanging on, felt condescending and retrograde.  But like my forefathers, I saw inspiration in Judy Garland, namely in her performance as Dorothy Gale in Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t see Garland’s vulnerability or fragility as something contemptible. Instead, I related to it. And I always felt that Garland’s Dorothy was the ultimate screen heroine. Because she was a kid, and a girl, and because she cried a lot, people easily dismissed the idea of Dorothy Gale: Hero. But that kind of viewing is short-sighted.

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale / © Warner Home Video

The story is so familiar that it doesn’t need a recap, except I will mention that as a kid growing up in the deadening, boring, blue collar streets of Southside Chicago, the journey from Kansas to Oz was miraculous. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, an ordinary girl from the Midwest, becomes an extraordinary heroine, freeing the enslaved victims of the Wicked Witches. During her journey, she makes friends with unforgettable friends, and she has adventures. She also learns about herself, discovering a strength and bravery she didn’t know she had. The Wizard of Oz is a story for little girls who are finding their own budding feminism, and a story for immigrants and refugees, who, like Dorothy, are in search for a place to call “home” (Salman Rushdie writes in detail about the immigrant angle of The Wizard of Oz in his essay for the BFI Film Classics series). It’s also a queer story of self-discovery.

Why is Dorothy Gale’s journey so important for queer audiences? Why do we identify with her so much? Probably because her story parallels our story. Like Dorothy, lots of gay guys are trapped in the boring and stultifying confines of the Midwest. Men from places like Middle of Nowhere, Iowa, or How Do I Get Out Of Here, Missouri are looking to escape. And just as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry don’t understand Dorothy’s feelings of angst and not fitting in, our families don’t know what to do with us. In the sepia-colored Kansas sequence, Dorothy is dismissed by her family. She seems to be of little use to her farmer folks; Aunt Em irritably asks her to “help us out today and find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble!” My dad said almost the exact same thing to me when I was a kid, after I broke some of his tools trying to help him fix his car.

In Kansas, Dorothy is a nobody, powerless and vulnerable to the town bullies, especially mean old Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton, easily celluloid’s most dangerous and frightening villain—she’d give Hannibal Lecter nightmares). But in Oz, thanks to her fab ruby pumps, Dorothy becomes all-powerful, able to kill witches, tame lions, and expose the hypocrisy of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. I imagine a lot of gay guys longed for similar glory while stuck in their oppressive surroundings. The gym classes. The playgrounds. The school bus. These were places where we were at our most vulnerable, where school bullies were our Miss Gulch.

When I was a closeted adolescent, still trying to figure who I was and where I fit in, I faced demons and adults as ineffectual as those in Dorothy’s world. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry couldn’t save Toto from Miss Gulch’s evil grip. When she demanded that the dog be destroyed, Dorothy’s parents were powerless and defeated. The most Aunt Em could muster was the impotent retort:

Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn’t mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For 23 years, I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now… well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!

The scene reminds me of the many times teachers would shrug helplessly when I reported being bullied by my classmates for being “different.” They would dismiss the bullying as being given a “hard time by the boys,” in hopes that it would die away and they wouldn’t have to deal with something difficult and unpleasant. I couldn’t run away, but Dorothy did. She packed her dog into a picnic basket and set out, willing to do whatever she could to save her dog. It’s at this moment that we first see Dorothy’s steely resolve. She understands that because the adults in her life failed her, it’s up to her to save her Toto.

During the 1970s, gay guys moved out west to San Francisco in their own version of a Great Migration. Like Dorothy, they escaped black-and-white oppression for the multicolored, sometimes garish, freedom of the city. Dorothy steps out of her house and is immediately doused in eye-frying Technicolor so oversaturated, it makes the colors look drippy and juicy. She’s met by a gaggle of Munchkins who praise her for freeing them from the Wicked Witch of the East. In this accidental act of murder, she inherits her ruby slippers.

We did the same thing.

© Warner Home Video

We ran away from the places where we were fags, sissies, and nellies, and ended up in places where we were the heroes. What made us the targets of ridicule and violence in our former, black-and-white lives made us special and different in Technicolor. Alvin Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas. Halston was born in Des Moines, Iowa. David Wojnarowicz was born in Red Bank, New Jersey. Liberace was born in West Allis, Wisconsin. These guys, like Dorothy, sought their heart’s desire, and like Dorothy, they stepped far away from their backyards to do so. But unlike Dorothy, they didn’t want to go back home.

That’s why I titled this piece as a question, and why the ending of The Wizard of Oz always bums me out. I’ve seen the film 20, 30 times, and practically have it memorized, but I always get sad when Dorothy reveals her big lesson at the end of the movie. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire,” she says, “I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

It’s at this moment that I want to scream, “Why? You got out! If you hadn’t left your backyard, you never would’ve known just how powerful you are. You wouldn’t know your potential.” Staying indoors is for recluses, not heroes. After I calm down, I remind myself that The Wizard of Oz was as much a product of a multi-million dollar conglomerate as it was a great work of art. MGM head Louis B. Mayer was all about conservative family values. He saw his life’s work as a way to propagandize traditional family values—honor your parents, go to school, go to church, that sort of thing. Dorothy’s angst and feeling of rebellion did lead her on a fantastic adventure, but by the end of the movie, the glitz and glamour of Oz had faded, and she wanted to go back to safe, predictable, monochromatic Kansas.

So Dorothy is a conditional hero. We follow her on a journey in which she learns that the world can be chaotic, frightening, and difficult. She learns that adults can be cruel and ineffectual. She learns that rules are often broken. She learns that life isn’t fair. She learns that sometimes she cannot rely on family. She learns that the friends she makes are her family. Most importantly, though, she learns that she needs to be able to take care of herself.  Unfortunately, the MGM Dorothy is a creation of conservative values, so her heroism goes only so far. When she croons “Over the Rainbow” in her honey-molasses voice, she yearns for an ideal world, where “troubles melt like lemon drops.” But by the end of the movie, the message of escape is reverted, and like a dutiful young girl, she returns to Kansas, having learned her lesson.

The film’s script reassures its viewers by explaining Dorothy’s heroics as just a dream, brought on by a head injury. And that is why it makes sense that veterans of the Stonewall Rebellion bristle at the thought of being associated with Judy Garland or Dorothy. Because they did not compromise like Dorothy did; instead, they made it “over the rainbow,” and kept going, without looking back. If Dorothy Gale was a queer post-Stonewall character, then she would’ve stayed in Oz, taking her rightful place as its queen after vanquishing the evil witches and exposing the Nixonian Wizard. So, even though Dorothy takes back a lot of what she gains from her journey, we can still find inspiration in her heroic exploits. No amount of capitulation erases the grit and determination she exhibits during her adventures.