Was Lou Reed the First Openly Bisexual Rock Star?

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Oct. 27 2013 9:34 PM

Was Lou Reed the First Out Rock Star?

Lou Reed
Lou Reed, photographed in October 2013.

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for John Varvatos

Soon after Lou Reed’s death at age 71 on Sunday, Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend tweeted that the legendary rock star was “maybe the first out songwriter,” an allusion to his purported bisexuality. During his lifetime, Reed was famous for his sybaritic pursuits and unorthodox lifestyle. But was he bisexual?

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

He certainly wasn’t heterosexual. As a teenager, Reed displayed “homosexual feelings” that alarmed his parents, who forced him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. (He vividly described the treatment in the song “Kill Your Sons.”) During his glam rock years, Reed’s on-stage persona frequently bordered on androgyny, which—combined with his well-known and tumultuous friendship with the openly bisexual David Bowie—created an impression of epicene pansexuality.

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Reed was also rumored to have pursued a number of same-sex lovers, though most of these stories remain pure scuttlebutt. Billy Name, a photographer and Factory regular, has claimed that he and Reed had sex in 1968, though their encounter sounds less than passionate. Better documented is Reed’s relationship with Rachel, a trans woman about whom little is known. Rachel toured with Reed in the mid-1970s, and the two were known to be lovers. Although Rachel seems to have identified as a woman, Reed referred to her as both genders, sometimes in the same breath. (“Nothing could impress her. He’d hardly heard my music and didn’t like it all that much when he did.”) After they broke up, Reed married (and later divorced) Sylvia Morales, a straight woman who was alleged to have a part-time job as a dominatrix.

Advertisement

Reed’s biographers, and many of his fans, often take his bisexuality as a given. Chris Roberts, author of Lou Reed: The Stories Behind the Songs, describes the singer as “a bisexual Factory burnout,” a “bisexual speed freak,” and a “bisexual student of Dostoevsky.” Some obituaries, too, have mentioned his bisexuality without explanation or qualification. But during his lifetime, Reed was perpetually evasive on the topic of his own sexuality. In an infamous “interview-cum-confrontation” with Lester Bangs, Reed waxed cryptic about the matter, saying:

The notion that everybody's bisexual is a very popular line right now, but I think its validity is limited. I could say something like if in any way my album helps people decide who or what they are, then I will feel I have accomplished something in my life. But I don't feel that way at all. ... You can't listen to a record and say, “Oh that really turned me onto gay life, I'm gonna be gay.” A lot of people will have one or two experiences, and that'll be it. Things may not change one iota. ... By the time a kid reaches puberty they've been determined. Guys walking around in makeup is just fun. Why shouldn't men be able to put on makeup and have fun like women have?

When Bangs asked about Reed’s next album, Reed responded, "I may come out with a hardhat album. Come out with an anti-gay song, saying 'Get back in your closets, you fuckin' queers!' That'll really do it!"

Despite the occasionally brutal candor of his music, then, Reed’s sexuality will likely remain a point of opacity. In his later years, he married longtime girlfriend Laurie Anderson, and the two were, by most accounts, extremely content. The precise parameters of his sexuality, however, remain unclear. Whether Reed was bi, pan, or ambisexual, we only know for sure that he was, to the end, a thoroughly modern man.

For more on Lou Reed, read Rob Wile on how the singer helped bring down communism in Eastern Europe and watch this great PBS documentary.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.