David Bowie existed in a world of self-created myths. There was the red-haired, thunderbolt-toting Ziggy Stardust; the dapper, cocaine-addicted Thin White Duke; the eyepatch-adorned Halloween Jack; the comparatively somber Man Who Fell From Earth. And the list goes on. David Bowie was as many things artistically as he was charismatically: a music maverick, a fearless originator, a relentless chameleon. He was also, for many, an icon in the LGBT community, an inspiration to generations of gay youth, a figure who gave—and continues to give—permission for people to be themselves.
Bowie's rise to fame was backdropped by a repressive late 1960s and early '70s, an era when openly gay, or at least sexually ambiguous, figures in music were not yet part of the cultural mainstream. From nearly the beginning, Bowie challenged the established zeitgeist. By the time he was 22 years old, Bowie had cultivated an image that famously combined elements from the worlds of fashion, cabaret, and photography to create an unheralded form of non-gender-specific beauty. Homosexuality in Britain had only been legalized five years before Bowie announced he was gay in a notorious interview with the now-defunct Melody Maker magazine in 1972, right around the time he released his iconic Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
When Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops later that year, donning a skintight jumpsuit and his patented ghost-like make-up, his sexual ambiguity and fey features set off a sociocultural revolution, offering a galvanizing alternative to a generation that had been raised to think men must only aspire to be Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman. Also in 1972, Britain held its first Gay Pride March, with 700 people walking from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park in London. This was the era of both Woodstock and Watergate, white picket fences and bell bottoms. The world was evolving, and Bowie was at the center of the change.
"He taught me to explore and embrace the unknown. It's not always a comfortable place, but that's where originality comes from."
In 1976, Bowie announced in an interview with Playboy that he was bisexual. "I suppose it's the best thing that ever happened to me," he declared sportively. "Fun, too." Though his bisexuality was only one aspect of Bowie's great celebration of individuality, it was a crucial part of his appeal. As Canadian writer John Semley noted in the Toronto Star, Bowie's "music, his fashion sense, his mercurial identity and abounding intelligence laid waste to the swagger and pomposity of rock music in the 1970s, replacing preening machismo with something queerer, cooler and altogether more fun."
It was this sense of fun, free from society's pre-ordained definitions of how that fun was supposed to look (especially as it was, based around gender), that offered, and arguably continues to offer, Bowie's fans in the LGBT community something to celebrate—not only in him and his music, but in themselves.
In 2011, a group of researchers gave academic confirmation to the importance of openly gay media figures to younger members of the LGBT community; the findings suggest that "increasing the availability of LGBT role models in the media may positively influence GLB identity." Thus, LGBT figures in popular culture help to foster a sense of self-worth in young gay people, becoming a source of reassurance and comfort, and helping to reduce psychological stress. Bowie was indeed a reassuring presence for many young gay people, helping them come to terms with their differentness, and to more fully embrace their identity.
Being a young gay person was—and in some cases still is—an isolating experience; there is plenty of research to suggest as much. Bowie's insistent individuality, on television, in interviews, and through music and live performance, helped to make generations of young gay people feel they weren't alone in their tastes, passions, and pursuits, and that not fitting in was (and is) perfectly OK, even wonderful.
But it's hard to convey the importance of someone like Bowie through academic jargon and data sets; conversations with everyday people prove to be far more illuminating. Looking back on the 1972 Melody Maker interview, Enrico Corte, a 53-year-old artist from Italy, recalls "the news [reaching] a number of people in countries where homosexuality was still a taboo, so LGBT people certainly started feeling less isolated."
Or take Michael Barron: Growing up the youngest of six children in rural Ireland in the 1970s, Barron saw Bowie as a catalyst for his own acceptance. "He came out before others did," Barron remembers. "He said he was bisexual in the mainstream media at a time when that seemed impossible. He was gender bending, wearing dresses and being sexy. Strangely, people in my life as a teenager, who I really feared coming out to, loved him. I felt like I had a very personal relationship with Bowie and he was helping out, if that makes sense."
Barron's husband, Jaime Nanci, a jazz musician himself, concurs. "I was actually sort of afraid of him, afraid of his queerness," Nanci admits. "Just like I was of Freddy Mercury and Boy George for a long time, because I was afraid that to express any interest would paint me as queer too. But I secretly loved Bowie's theatricality [and] otherness."
New York City-based writer Geoffrey Dicker says he learned from Bowie to embrace not being part of the mainstream. "He taught me to explore and embrace the unknown. It's not always a comfortable place, but that's where originality comes from. He taught me to be different. There is only one of you on this planet so don't waste your time trying to be someone else."
Corte, for his part, found Bowie fascinatingly "kitschy and campy" during his teenage years. He recalls being entranced with Low, Bowie's 1977 album recorded (in part) at the famous Hansa Studios in Berlin. "It was something unheard of at that time, and I was struck by that," he says. "It was energetic, original, new; not simply glam or plastic soul."
Of course, not all gay people were so sure of Bowie's motives, particularly when it came to his sexuality.
"Bowie stole a lot from (mime artist) Lindsay Kemp and the gay scene," Corte says. "Everybody in Italy was aware of that. His declared bisexuality was mainly seen—even by gay men I knew—as a publicity stunt for his career; everybody knew about his wife and their son. I think his use of drugs was a bigger scandal than his homosexuality, actually. Everything is permitted when you are a rock star anyway. As far as I'm concerned, straight and gay people were attracted by him because of his music and his artistic freedom."
But others argue Bowie's motives aren't really important anymore. As novelist Rupert Smith told the BBC, Bowie's sexual ambiguity may have been "partly for show, but ultimately I don't think it matters what he was doing in his private life.... More than anyone else, he blasted the closet-door off its hinges."
Dicker agrees: "Bowie defied labels. Was he gay? Was he straight? Was he an alien from another planet? You never knew and it didn't matter, because it didn't define who he was. He was an artist. That is the only label he needed."
Lead Photo: David Bowie prepares to do some mileage with British Rail in 1973. (Photo: Smith/Express/Getty Images)