Daily Life

Was he gay, bisexual or Bowie? Yes

The preoccupation with the was-he-or-wasn't-he part of Bowie's sexuality often overshadows his more nuanced contributions to queer culture through imagery and style.

When David Bowie died on Sunday, he left behind legions of fans who will remember him as the godfather of glam rock and the patron saint of defiant outcasts.

In the days since his death, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender fans have shared how David Bowie influenced their lives.
In the days since his death, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender fans have shared how David Bowie influenced their lives. 

And it became quickly apparent online that to one diverse group that came of age during his ascendance, Bowie, 69, was not just a pop idol but a lifeline.

In the days since his death, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender fans have shared how the rocker influenced their lives and helped bring queer culture into the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. In essays, interviews, on Twitter and on Facebook, they told how his rise gave them strength.

Tributes at the David Bowie wall, Brixton, London.
Tributes at the David Bowie wall, Brixton, London.  

Many saw a kindred spirit in Bowie's various characters and gender-bending style, beginning with his first androgynous persona, Ziggy Stardust, in 1972. Not only had he made a glittery, alien-looking creature look cool, he had helped pioneer a sexy (and marketable) form of otherness that mainstream artists have tried to replicate in the decades since.

"In high school, Ziggy Stardust blasted confidence into my ears and said, 'See, it's OK to be different and strange and you are wonderful,'" wrote John Barlow, a New York Times reader from Atlanta. "Feeling those sentiments was important, especially as a gay youth who was not out at the time."

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The edginess of Bowie's style earned him fast stardom and the freedom to play with gender and sexuality. He retired the Ziggy character, but continued to play with his image in a way that forced his viewers to rethink ideas of gender.

In an essay for Out magazine, the French designer Jean Paul Gaultier recalled one example from Bowie's tour in 1978.

Although Bowie freely experimented with fluidity in music, gender and fashion, he was frequently asked to categorise his ...
Although Bowie freely experimented with fluidity in music, gender and fashion, he was frequently asked to categorise his sexuality with a label. Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot

"At the beginning of the show, he appeared as a kind of Marlene Dietrich, but with a white captain's jacket and a cap," Gaultier wrote. "It was obvious that it was not Bowie playing a captain, but Bowie playing Marlene Dietrich playing a man."

Bowie's longevity as a star extended his influence. "When people are growing up they're generally looking for something in the culture that reflects their subconscious yearnings," Grayson Perry wrote in The Guardian. "Bowie certainly did that for my generation. In fact, he probably did it for two or three."

Bowie and wife Iman at the 2002 Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards,
Bowie and wife Iman at the 2002 Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards,  Photo: AP

Although Bowie freely experimented with fluidity in music, gender and fashion, he was frequently asked to categorise his sexuality with a label.

"I'm gay," he said to the journalist Michael Watts in 1972, "and always have been, even when I was David Jones," his name at birth.

Eleven years later, in an article for Rolling Stone titled "Straight Time," Bowie called this declaration "the biggest mistake I ever made."

He would still face the question in interviews years later: Was he gay or bisexual? (Wherever he fell on the spectrum, Bowie understood that the entire concept was part spectacle: "Sex has never really been shocking," he told Playboy in 1976, "it was just the people who performed it who were.")

The preoccupation with the was-he-or-wasn't-he part of Bowie's sexuality often overshadows his more nuanced contributions to queer culture through imagery and style. Still, he was not really an activist.

On Instagram, Justin Vivian Bond, a transgender singer, clarified that Bowie was "was not an activist in the traditional sense."

Instead, the musician "provided a soundtrack and visuals which reshaped our world." In other words, he was not a campaigner for gay rights, but Bowie's art complemented a larger fight for acceptance and civil rights.

Whether his lack of activism made his artistic, sexual and sartorial experimentation a form of cultural appropriation is a topic of debate, but as J. Bryan Lowder wrote in Slate, "you can't appropriate what you help create.

"He may have bucked or played coy with identity labels presaging our modern situation quite well," Lowder continued, "but, especially at the beginning of his career, he was recognisably 'gay.' Culturally speaking, I think it's a label he deserves."