Throughout his life, David Bowie—who died on Sunday at the age of 69—played hard to get with sexuality. Not that he was shy about sex; by all accounts (including his own), he got plenty of that. But when it came to labeling his desires, Bowie pioneered the now-common pop star strategy of dropping hints and claiming identities in passing—only to discard them later—with the (probably intended) effect of maintaining the straight public’s interest and the queer public’s devotion.
In 1972, just before the release of Ziggy Stardust and while married to first wife Angela, Bowie was gay: “I'm gay, and always have been, even when I was David Jones,” he assured Melody Maker, which described him as a “swishy queen … as camp as a row of tents.” (Bisexuality was also proposed, due to the wife.) Then, in 1976, he was definitely bisexual: “It’s true–I am a bisexual,” he told a skeptical Playboy. “But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Fun, too.” Fun or no, 1983 came and Rolling Stone bore the headline “David Bowie Straight”: “The biggest mistake I ever made," Bowie told journalist Kurt Loder over some beers in Australia, “was telling that Melody Maker writer that I was bisexual. Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting …” Though many queer fans viewed this recantation as “an act of betrayal” according to biographer Marc Spitz, coming as it did at the onset of the AIDS crisis, Bowie doubled-down in 1993. Again, in Rolling Stone:
I think I was always a closet heterosexual. I didn’t ever feel that I was a real bisexual. It was like I was making all the moves, down to the situation of actually trying it out with some guys […] I wanted to imbue Ziggy with real flesh and blood and muscle, and it was imperative that I find Ziggy and be him. The irony of it was that I was not gay. I was physical about it, but frankly it wasn’t enjoyable. It was almost like I was testing myself. It wasn’t something I was comfortable with at all. But it had to be done.
Bowie may not have been comfortable with same-sex sexual contact, but he was certainly at home in the culture that gay men and other queer folks had created. His forays into androgyny and drag, his flouncing affect and use of Polari—these are all the result of a purposeful study Bowie undertook early in the construction of his most enduring image iteration. About this, he was completely honest. From elsewhere in the 1993 Rolling Stone piece:
But for me, I was more magnetized by the whole gay scene, which was underground. Remember, in the early 1970s it was still virtually taboo. There might have been free love, but it was heterosexual love. I like this twilight world. I like the idea of these clubs and these people and everything about it being something that nobody knew anything about. So it attracted me like crazy. It was like another world that I really wanted to buy into. So I made efforts to go and get into it. That phase lasted up to about 1974. It more or less died with Ziggy.
Now that the man behind Ziggy is also dead, we for whom queerness is not a phase seem to have two options in terms of how we deal with Bowie’s fraught relationship to our name and our stuff. We can be pissed off and view his career as, at least in part, an act of sly cultural appropriation—one of many that pop has committed at our expense over the years. Or, more generously, we can allow that even if Bowie was not really sexually queer (gay, bi, or otherwise), he was one of the most culturally queer artists to grace this earth.
I’m partial to the latter view. As I wrote at length in 2015, I believe that cultural gayness is something that can and does exist apart from homosexuality. Gays may have developed the set of cultural practices that define gayness, or what some call the “gay sensibility” or “gay aesthetics,” but they need not be its only practitioners. Indeed, straight people (or whatever Bowie might have been) are theoretically just as capable of doing cultural gayness as gays are—and indeed, some may do it better. As a veritable innovator of gay style, Bowie would seem to be a natural fit in this category; you can’t appropriate what you help create. He may have bucked or played coy with identity labels—presaging our modern situation quite well—but, especially at the beginning of his career, he was recognizably “gay.” Culturally speaking, I think it’s a label he deserves.
Of course, Bowie’s legitimacy as a gay artist may not quell misgivings about his politics: As much as he enjoyed our clubs, he was apparently not terribly interested in gay liberation as a political project in the 1970s. And his typical swagger sometimes produced a strange blend of homophobia and misogyny when applied to real “queens”—particularly in that Playboy interview, in which he jokes about knowing “how to keep happy” in prison, treating his boys “like real ladies,” and having a predilection for young Japanese men who “are all queens until they reach 25.” However much of this you are willing to forgive as working-class-rock-star-before-PC bluster is a personal call; it complicates my feelings to a degree.
But then, artists as visionary as Bowie are necessarily complicated—they probably wouldn’t be very good otherwise. For myself, I think I will choose to remember Bowie as a peculiar—and incredibly effective—drag queen. The flood of obituaries and remembrances today form a chorus of praise for Bowie’s shifting self-presentation, his chameleon-like ability to revise his artistic identity in conversation with the zeitgeist. These are all nice ways of saying he understood drag—an art form arising from the fundamental (and hard-learned, for queer people) principle that we are all always performing and that masks are often a necessity in this life. Drag also draws its power from the world-changing potential of juxtaposition, of the jolt that’s generated when fishnet swaddles hairy thigh, when rock ‘n’ roll rigidity reclines upon chaise lounge, when expectation stumbles over reality. Bowie, on sex:
Sex has never really been shocking, it was just the people who performed it who were. Shocking people, performing sex. Now nobody really cares. Everybody fucks everybody. The only thing that shocks now is an extreme. Like me running my mouth off, jacking myself off. Unless you do that, nobody will pay attention to you. Not for long. You have to hit them on the head.
When the swishy queen in a dress hits you on the head. It may have been a performance—but if you ask me, that’s about as gay as it gets.