Tommy Femia has been singing Judy Garland songs since he was 3 years old. In his early 20s, he took the act to the stage and has been portraying her in drag shows for more than two decades in New York.

"I connect emotionally with her," said Femia.

Garland became a gay icon for her naturally melodramatic style and her fortitude when it seemed she was fighting impossible odds.

"Being gay, you have your own rebirths all the time, and your life is at a higher pitch," Femia said. "Things in your life are more over-the-top, and Judy matched that."

Bradley Traynor, a contributor to Lavender magazine, finds inspiration in Garland's fight to be herself in the face of handlers trying to put her in a box.

"Like a lot of gay people, you live in the image that people want you to be," Traynor said. "But there's a part of you that's struggling to get out, and she's that kind of character."

Brooklyn-born Femia recalled the morning that Garland's death was announced. His mother met him in the kitchen with the morning paper and told him she had some bad news.

"I was 10 years old, and I went into the bathroom and cried for two hours," he said.

Garland's death in June 1969 has become something of an urban legend in gay culture. Some historians have tied her death to the Stonewall riots in New York City a week later, which were a turning point in the gay rights movement. The timing might have been mere coincidence, but the grief hanging in the atmosphere could have inspired the protests.

"She was one of those people who thrived on adversity," Traynor said.