SOMEWHERE NEAR THE END of the bravura brashness that is Funny Girl, the film that unleashed Barbra Streisand on the world, there's an actual moment of quiet. Barbra's heart is breaking as she says goodbye to Omar Sharif, the roguish, hopeless love of her life. With a moving hint of embarrassment--which these days Streisand is clearly no longer capable of feeling--she hesitantly tells him, "You made me feel sort of beautiful, you know, for a very long time." Sharif softly lifts her chin and replies, "You ARE beautiful." If you're a particular kind of young gay man, living in isolated pain and yearning for some sense of validation, you ache for a beautiful man to tell you you're beautiful. You want to be told that you're okay and that you have promise--even if you are clearly different, even if you have to fight for affection.

Even if you will one day make Yentl.

As homosexuality becomes an increasingly visible part of society's landscape, the kind of undying loyalty that Streisand and other über-females engendered in gay men throughout most of the last century seems to be passing out of fashion. We saw ourselves in them, some say, because no one else would see us. As we're assimilated into the larger (and male-centric) culture, an attachment to Marilyn Monroe's vulnerability or Bette Davis' steely bitchery supposedly doesn't make sense. Why get worked up over Joan Crawford's ball-breaking when society has chosen to acknowledge your own strength? Why thrill over Julie Andrews' pluck in The Sound of Music when you can climb your own mountains as a legitimate member of the mainstream? Who needs a woman to show him the way?

In the new millennium, there simply may not be the kind of oppression that makes Madonna sound like the voice of liberation when you're 16 and a fag and holed up in your bedroom when everybody else is at the prom and she's singing, "Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free/At night, I lock the door where no one else can see/I'm tired of dancing here all by myself/Tonight, I wanna dance with someone else." The more it becomes possible for young gay men to dance with someone else, the less you need an icon to tell you to "get into the groove."

Most queer theorists, though, miss the boat where diva worship is concerned. Ironically, they regurgitate an ignorant heterosexual belief when they do so. They reinforce the assumption that gay people suffer from a sort of passive sadness, an overriding personality disorder, as though loneliness were unknown in other circles. It's the suffering, we've been told again and again, that unified us. We identify with women because they, too, are oppressed. There may be some truth to that, but it isn't our suffering; it's our enduring hope that creates icons. Diva worship is a sensitivity to life's endless possibilities and our ability to transcend acceptance or oppression.

So Streisand is hurting in Funny Girl, but she also gets to tear into "My Man" with a larger-than-life defiance. Sure, Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz is suffering and alienated, and dreams of a Technicolor world where she can sing and dance with a bunch of funky friends and wear the best pair of shoes on the planet. But it was her articulation of a universal and constant, HUMAN longing that drew gay men to Garland, not the particulars of gay longing. It wasn't Garland's frequent melancholy that drew gay men to her, but her unbounded warmth and the shameless tenderness she poured out. Garland's absence of inhibition suggested a perfect world in which everyone is allowed to show everything they're feeling.

Femininity is a dirty word for most men, even many gay men, but there is power in it. Taking pride in possessing something so fearful will make diva worship a timeless force in gay culture. We may yet become part of the mainstream, but we'll never be straight men, and, of course, neither will women. The women who become recipients of extreme homosexual affection are intensely, sometimes aggressively feminine, not in the sense of lacy girlishness but in the sense of being female to the nth degree. These are women who are everything men, in general, are not, and frankly, never will be: emotional, expressive, and capable of great joy. Happiness, that American birthright, is relatively easy to come by once you have permission. Joy, however, is a different matter, particularly where men are concerned.

Unabashed, self-possessed, triumphant joy is a fey thing. It requires the destruction of thick walls, the parting of great seas of social conditioning, to shed the reserved nature of what is normally considered manliness. It shows a complete lack of concern for acceptable codes of male behavior to cut loose in a carefree burst of celebration, the kind that lets you skip gleefully down a yellow brick road or spin ecstatically on an Austrian mountaintop. So, yes, one day, with faith and effort, it may well be perfectly normal to see a young man dancing in a bad suit with another awkward male at the high school prom. But that mountaintop will always be officially off-limits for men, and only by looking to divas can we find our way there.