Plausibly the earliest gay icon was Saint Sebastian, a Christian saint and martyr, whose strong and shirtless physique, symbolic arrow-pierced flesh, and rapturous look of pain combined have intrigued artists, both gay and straight, for centuries and began the first explicitly gay cult in the nineteenth century. Journalist Richard A. Kaye writes, "contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case." Due to Saint Sebastian's status as gay icon, Tennessee Williams chose to use that name for the martyred character Sebastian in his play, Suddenly, Last Summer. The name was also used by Oscar Wilde – as Sebastian Melmoth – when in exile after his release from prison. Wilde, an Irish writer and poet, was about as "out of the closet" as was possible for the late nineteenth century, and is himself considered to be a gay icon.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Allure of St. Sebastian
"From Byzantine Daddy to Baroque Twink" – Charles Darwent on the Journey of St. Sebastian
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
St. Michael the Archangel: Perspectives and Portraits
Sergius and Bacchus: Martyrs, Saints and Lovers
Honoring (and Learning From) the Passion of Sergius and Bacchus
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
Image: "The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian" by Il Sodoma.