Remembering David Bowie's Defiant Queerness

Remembering David Bowie's Defiant Queerness

On the anniversary of the icon's death, the gray areas he moved in remain as head-scratching as they've ever been.

On the anniversary of the icon's death, the gray areas he moved in remain as head-scratching as they've ever been.

Text: E.R. Pulgar

It's been two years since David Bowie's death, a heartbreaking moment that, as we now know, would prove a dark omen for the coming year. Since then, a documentary of his last five years was released alongside a demo of his 1983 hit "Let's Dance." Fans have laid down flowers, tattooed thunderbolts on their wrists, attended candlelit vigils and painted their faces in time-honored imitations of Ziggy Stardust. We've all, in our own ways, put on our red shoes and danced the blues in his name.

Music critics have written opinion pieces not dissimilar to the one you're about to read; I know, because I read them before I sat down, two years after the death of a personal hero, to think about whether there's anything left worth saying. Now that the Internet is once again rife with pieces bearing the Starman's name, there's one important aspect of him that, despite being well-documented and ruminated upon after his death, has been a hard topic to really pin down: his queerness.

In life, Bowie was the patron saint of defiant queerness, a trailblazer redefining exactly what that meant. When other rockers were dressing down, he was applying glittery blue eyeliner. When gay life in post-Stonewall United States was barely out of gestation, he proudly proclaimed to Melody Maker in a now-historic interview—and in a move regarded by some as a PR gimmick—that he was gay. Delving deeper, one will be dismayed to find backtracking: eventually he came to define himself as bisexual, and then say to Rolling Stone in the early 80s that coming out was "the biggest mistake [he] ever made." He came to marry and have two kids with the model Iman, after a notoriously promiscuous open marriage to his first wife Angie. From the height of the era of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll, the shift to the comforts of heteronormativity that elude those he most affected would be jarring were it literally anyone else.

For all extents and purposes, and to the eyes of many, Bowie could be yet another rich, straight white male appropriating marginalized culture—yet that feels unfair to say. One would wonder why he even bothered to come out. One would wonder why a man who presented so flamboyantly on and offstage, who changed the face of what it meant to be a rock star, of what it meant to be a man, would take back such a reclamation of power. One would think there would be more outrage that he's not widely discussed as queer despite documented relationships with men.

Chalk it up to bisexual and pansexual men very simply not existing in modern pop culture, a grave problem of erasure that still haunts contemporary glam rock god Freddie Mercury. Many people came to the conclusion that it didn't matter what Bowie was—he was an alien, he eluded definition and most importantly, as La JohnJoseph wrote for i-D the year of the icon's death, he made queer cool by subverting the narrative of the suffering, marginalized gay man pushed by the media. Before it was cool, he shaped the narrative of queerness as undefinable.

Ultimately, this great space oddity of a man was embraced in all his flamboyant glory and inability to be boxed in. Able to present queer male sexuality as something that was not a cross to bear, he moved into the more "normal" life he wanted near the end, David Jones ultimately shone through David Bowie. This didn't make him any less of a gay icon, any less of a trailblazer and bridge-builder for the LGBTQ+ community as it is now. His performance of gender and his refusal to be tied to a specific sexuality may have made him hard to pin down, but what are gender and sexuality if not spectrums of every color? What is queerness if not the inability to be put in a box, to defy?

It's been two years since the stars began to look a little different. Whether queer teenager coming of age or late bloomer blasting devastatingly prophetic final album Blackstar, one conclusion remains: on January 10, 2016, the world lost a strange, remarkable, undefinable man.

See photos from Bowie's cover spread shot by Mario Testino from V18 below. 

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Credits: Header photo via Getty Images

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