As bisexual alien, David Bowie broke barriers

January 12, 2016 9:38 am
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David Bowie launched his career just as the gay liberation movement was picking up steam, with sex between men decriminalized in Britain in 1967 © AFP/File Jack Guez
David Bowie launched his career just as the gay liberation movement was picking up steam, with sex between men decriminalized in Britain in 1967
© AFP/File Jack Guez

, NEW YORK, Jan 12 – When David Bowie sang on British television in 1972, the newly famous rock star stretched out his arm and wrapped it around guitarist Mick Ronson.

Yet this was not a macho display of male bonding of the sort seen among sports teams. Bowie, his hair dyed deep orange and wearing a bright multicolor Lycra jumpsuit, gazed into Ronson’s eyes and for a brief moment oozed sensuality.

Bowie, who died Sunday at age 69 after a secret battle with cancer, had said he was gay. Then he said he was in fact bisexual. In the end, he offered his era’s equivalent of checking “none of the above.”

Bowie’s refusal to conform to neat boxes made him an inspiration for successive generations of LGBTQ people, many of whom only recently have seen society accept more fluid concepts of gender and sexuality.

Bowie was able to chart a new identity because his persona was, literally, alien.

Fascinated by space, Bowie took on the alter ego of Ziggy Stardust, the androgynous rock-and-roll messenger for extraterrestrials.

Bowie was in character as Ziggy Stardust, performing “Starman,” during the 1972 appearance on Britain’s “Top of the Pops.”

Bowie’s death reminded many LGBTQ people of “that moment when we were all younger and alone without a sense of what other worlds were possible out there,” said Karen Tongson, an associate professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California.

“It was David Bowie and his chameleonic persona, his shifting identities, who allowed us to imagine being an alien between genders, being a goblin king, or whatever else.”

Bowie contributed to “the sense of being queer — of inhabiting, and moving fluidly, through a range of identities that aren’t necessarily solidified, or even a strict set of desires,” she said.

– Boy or girl? –

Bowie, a trailblazer in music, film and fashion, also embraced androgyny in his lyricism.

On one of his most famous songs, 1974’s “Rebel, Rebel” which closed his glam rock phase, Bowie sang: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl / ’cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”

Bowie kept up the gender ambiguity later in his career. In the hard-driving “Hallo Spaceboy,” off the 1995 album “Outside,” Bowie sings, “Don’t you want to be free? / Do you girls or boys? / It’s confusing these days.”

On his final album “Blackstar,” released on his 69th birthday on Friday as he was quietly dying, Bowie sings one song in Polari, the slang of the gay underground in late Victorian England.

Yet despite his iconic status for many in the LGBTQ community, Bowie was rarely overtly political in advocating for rights in the fashion of some of the artists he heavily influenced such as Madonna and Lady Gaga.

He was married twice, both times to women, with his relationship with Somali-born supermodel Iman lasting until his death.

While pop stars such as Elton John and George Michael played down their sexuality as they built their careers, Bowie hailed from a very different cultural space.

Bowie enjoyed massive success and influence but was always proudly a figure of the avant-garde rather than a mainstream entertainer.

He launched his career just as the gay liberation movement was picking up steam, with sex between men decriminalized in Britain in 1967.

– Defined by image –

Yet for many people who idolized Bowie, his significance lay not in his statements but his aesthetic.

“David Bowie’s importance — at least in my life, and probably in the lives of most people — is, in a way, more important than the entire gay rights movement,” said songwriter Stephin Merritt, who is best known as the frontman of genre-spanning indie rockers The Magnetic Fields.

“Bowie is about the freedom to have any identity you want, not just gendered,” Merritt, who is gay, wrote in Out magazine.

“I didn’t grow up with a father at all; I didn’t have a father figure telling me how to approach gender, so I thought David Bowie was a perfectly good model of how to approach gender. And I still think so.”

Yet Bowie’s androgyny also influenced generations of straight male singers from synthpop to metal who aspired to a less rigid form of masculinity.

Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan, who is straight, has described a dreary working-class home until he saw Bowie on television.

“Bowie gave me a hope that there was something else,” Gahan later told a biographer. “I just thought he wasn’t of this earth.”

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