Picture it. A gloomy seaside town in 1997. I was 17, living here and working in a bowling alley burger bar – my first job since I ran away from home the year before.
I was cooking Christmas dinner for my friends and elbow deep in a turkey’s arse when the phone rang. I wiped my hands on my Pat Butcher apron and answered.
A gravelly voice replied – ‘Hello Simon.’
‘No, sorry,’ I answered, ‘I’ll just get him for you. Who shall I say it is?’
‘It’s Bea,’ the voice growled. ‘Are you his boyfriend?’
‘Oh no, I’m just his lodger, Mikey. I’ll get him for you now. Oh, and merry Christmas.’
‘Thank you. And merry Christmas to you too, Mikey.’
That was my conversation with the late, great Bea Arthur – and I didn’t even realise I’d had one until my housemate told me about his friendship with her hours later.
For the next three weeks, I’d rush to the phone in the hope that I might speak to her again – to tell her how she’d brought a great deal of well-needed laughter into my fucked up little family when it had been needed most. And even more than that – to tell her just how much she’d meant to me. We never crossed phone lines again.
When I was asked to write about my gay icon, I jumped at the chance to dedicate a piece to Bea Arthur. Not only for her incredible talent or the phenomenal amount of work she’s done for the LGBT community, but because, quite simply, I’ve adored her for as long as I can remember.
With her stern, ever-scowling looks, her 5’9-in-bare-feet height and a voice that makes Darth Vader sound like Mary Poppins, Bea looked born for an acting career of prison guards and Trunchbull-like school ma’ams.
But Bea took her stern looks to a whole other level, making her an unsurpassed queen of comedy and the best deliverer of a witty retort there has ever been.
Whether in musicals, playing Lucille Ball’s best friend/worst enemy Vera Charles in Mame, or in sitcoms playing the incredibly freethinking Maude, or threatening her midget mother daily in The Golden Girls as Dorothy Zbornak, Bea really knew how to take a silence and tear the audience up with it.
Hardcore sci-fi gays might also know she’s the landlady of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars! Don’t believe me? It’s Google-able.
In real life though, Bea was an incredibly sensitive, shy and introverted lady, who confessed to only resembling her emasculating characters in looks alone.
Bea had a great love and respect for the gay community and I could go on for pages listing just how much she did for us.
She fought for gay rights for as long as she could be heard, she used her smash hit show Maude to shine a light on the ignorance of homophobia, and she was a patron of the Ali Forney Centre – a New York charity that provides shelter and a safe environment for LGBT youths that’ve been disowned by their families or thrown out of their homes for being gay.
Bea felt so strongly for this charity that she left the majority of her estate to them when she died. The original centre was sadly destroyed in 2012 thanks to Hurricane Sandy, but they’ve since built the Bea Arthur Residence for Homeless LGBT Youth in honour of the help she’d given to keep the centre alive.
It’s been five years since she passed away – and thanks to social media and those incredible Twitter gays, The Golden Girls couldn’t be more popular. Not a day goes by, that I don’t see an image of her rolling through my timeline.
I envy any person who’s yet to discover her genius for the first time. Thank you for being a friend, Bea. A friend to comedy, to charity, to our community – and to me. And thank you for the impact you’ve made on my life