“Why was she gay? Come on!”
Irked, Madonna twists her fingerless lace gloves, exposing a bejeweled skull on her ring finger. It’s a Friday night in the dead of winter, and we’re sitting in a windowless office in an anonymous skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. The drab space has been enhanced at Madonna’s request with a few cultural cues: Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless streams in an adjoining room, while Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, streams in this one, as the Queen of Pop lashes me for my ignorance regarding the Maid of Orleans. The lashing is figurative, but Madonna’s impatience is real. I’m only stating the obvious, I think, in observing that the virgin warrior must have been gay, but what this lazy assumption tells Madonna is that I have completely missed the point of Joan of Arc.
By extension, I have also missed the point of Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th studio album, the eighth track of which is “Joan of Arc,” a hauntingly beautiful mash-up of country and pop. “Joan of Arc” is one of the strongest tracks on the record, which, in its full Super Deluxe edition, comprises a staggering 25 songs, a dozen genres, scores of collaborators (ranging from rodeo raver Avicii to boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson), and nearly 100 minutes, making it the most protracted album of her career. As a manically curated compendium of contemporary beats — grasping for relevance in virtually every musical sub-niche — it could also be called her most ambitious album. All of which helps to explain why it matters to Madonna that I bring some rigor to my assessment of Saint Joan’s sexuality. Rebel Heart is not a gay-club dance album, and Joan of Arc was not a gay saint.
“OK, she dressed like a boy and she cut off her hair,” Madonna says. “That’s what the church tried to say. Also that the dauphin who supported her, that he was gay.” She bristles at the stupidity of equating a hairdo and a suit of armor with sexual orientation, and I, evidently no better than an English cardinal, sag with shame.
It is late, and I am the last in a procession of mostly gay reporter-supplicants who have lined up to interview her Madgesty, but an icon’s work is never done. Madonna now has to school me in 15th-century European history to prevent me from spreading fallacies to a credulous nation: “According to historians, the dauphin is the one who supplied her with the army, the cavalry, whatever, to take on England. Did they thank her for that? Of course not. They went, ‘Wait a minute, how could a girl do that? There must be something wrong with her.’ ”
Joan of Arc was burned at the stake while still a teenager for the crime of cross-dressing. “I can relate,” Madonna says. “Sometimes I’m getting burned at the stake metaphorically. Though not right this second.” Over the years, Madonna has been accused of innumerable heresies, including corrupting the youth, practicing witchcraft, being a disciple of a Baphomet (a goat-headed deity), and conspiring with the Illuminati, a calumny she satirically addresses on Rebel Heart with “Illuminati,” a song she co-produced with Kanye West.
In the weeks before our interview, Madonna endured criticism for circulating fan-generated promotional art for her new album that featured various historical rebels standing in for Madonna, whose face appears on the album cover wrapped in thick black wire suggestive of BDSM. When Madonna posted pictures to her Instagram of Martin Luther King, Jr., Princess Diana, and Nelson Mandela wrapped in the same wire, the Internet revolted. Madonna apologized but refused to take down the images, confirming her talent for transgressing holy boundaries, even in our allegedly permissive times.
So Madonna’s point about Joan: A strong woman, a mighty woman, a woman with a rebel’s heart should not have her heroism explained away by lesbianism or anything else. To assume that a strong woman must be gay is to assume that a straight woman can’t be strong. But the lesson isn’t over — there is more, and so Madonna continues: “I said to one of my friends who knows a lot about history and film, ‘Well, wait a minute. Why didn’t the dauphin stand up for her? He was royalty. He had a voice. He was somebody important. If he had the power to give her troops, why didn’t he have the power to protect her?’ And he said, ‘Because he was gay and nobody respected him.’ ”
A sexist cliché invades my thoughts: “Behind every great man is a great woman, and behind every great woman is a gay man.” In the circumstance Madonna describes, the cliché belies a more complex web of interaction: The dauphin behind Joan is a gay man — a gay man for whom she fights a war; a gay man who is crowned king by virtue of her efforts; a gay man who, after all she has done for him, fails to “stand up for her.” It led me to wonder, At 56, does Madonna fear being abandoned by her gay fans? Should she?
Madonna has been intimately connected to a wide community of gay men for decades, as an artistic collaborator, as a political ally, as an employer, as a friend, and as a sister. She was an early and vocal warrior in the fight against AIDS, and her commitment to AIDS activism struck many as too fervent for anyone without a personal stake in the matter. Consequently, she became gay by association, believed by a great many people — reportedly including her former husband Sean Penn — to be HIV-positive herself, despite her regular denials. “If this is what I have to deal with for my involvement in fighting this epidemic,” she said at a fundraiser for AIDS research in Los Angeles in 1991, “then so be it.”
Madonna’s earliest exposure to homosexuality came during ballet class in middle school. Observing her teacher, Christopher Flynn, was the first time she “was conscious of understanding that there was such a thing as gay,” she says. “It wasn’t called that then. I just came to understand that he was attracted to men.” Flynn introduced the teenage Madonna to a global culture that reached beyond the suburban narrowness of her Michigan upbringing. “He would bring me to museums. He also brought me to the first gay disco in Detroit, Menjo’s.”