2019 Stark State College Composition Essay Contest Winner
Photo by Ezekiel Elin on Unsplash
by Emily Baumgardner
I saw David Bowie for the first time in Labyrinth, a 1986 Jim Henson film that he starred in, and his entrance was nothing short of fantastical. An owl bursts through the opening doors out of a storm, and the wind is blowing the curtains around wildly, and finally, the owl shifts his shape. Bowie stands in all his glory, hands on his hips in strong defiance, glitter raining everywhere. I was four years old. That wasn’t the end for me. Instead, it began an obsession of finding everything about this rock star I could get my hands on and devouring it. With the androgynous clothing, makeup, and long hair, it didn’t take long for the general public to wonder what exactly drove Bowie to express himself the ways he did on stage and screen. It resonated with me in ways that are hard to describe, but I’m going to try.
Growing up in a predominantly Christian, affluent, and conservative place like Green, Ohio, there was hardly any room for LGBT+ people. It wasn’t that the adults said mean things about queer people; they just never said anything at all. Being gay, lesbian, or bisexual wasn’t discussed because it was improper. Certainly, being transgender was even more so haphazardly shoved under the rug. So, when I finally figured out that these feelings I’d been having for my best friend and other girls at school weren’t just platonic, I was shaken to my core. Being bisexual wasn’t what I wanted for myself. I’ll be honest about that. If anybody ever genuinely stopped to think about what LGBT+ people go through in the duration of their lives while they’re “out of the closet,” I don’t think that they could come to the conclusion that sexuality is a choice.
I was 14 when I came out to my mother. I remember shaking in my seat, clutching the edges to feel a semblance of security. There were seconds of silence, their own tiny infinities, and then finally, an atom splitting that created lasting nuclear damage. My mother, still ignorant to anything outside of heterosexuality, turned into every fear I’d had about myself. She screamed about an incessant need for attention, that I wasn’t really who I said I was, and that these feelings were just exacerbated admiration gone off the rails. I cried for hours. I went to sleep that night feeling as if everything in the universe was cursing me, daring me to try and love myself.
And after that, I began a scavenger hunt of a separate kind: finding other people like me. I wanted – no, needed – to prove that I wasn’t some freak anomaly or just making something up for the attention. And lo and behold, who should I find but Bowie, my childhood hero. I was scrolling through an article about bisexual celebrities, absentmindedly sifting through the photos and paragraphs, when I first read about David Bowie’s sexuality. I stopped immediately, frozen in place as my heart pounded in excitement. It was real, I wasn’t alone, and in fact, I had great company. I felt this camaraderie and connection to this man nearly fifty years my senior who I’d never met and who had never met me. After reading that Bowie was bisexual, I didn’t feel so lonely. I felt like suddenly there really was a whole world beyond my hometown, and more importantly, there were places and people that could love me as I am.
Recently, I came across an article about an interview David Bowie gave before his death. Bowie, reflecting on his past, stated in a Rolling Stone interview: “The biggest mistake I ever made was telling that Melody Maker writer that I was bisexual. Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting…” I was crushed. I felt like somebody had punched me so hard in the stomach that I could finally understand Houdini’s cause of death. And as hard as that quote was to swallow, this next one felt like it was lodged in my throat. In another interview with Rolling Stone ten years later, Bowie stated:
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 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.
Instantly, I cried. This hero I’d built up in my head for over a decade as a champion of people who felt like me and loved like me felt like a cheap imposter. But why was this so important to me? Why was I so emotionally compromised at this new information? Surely, his sexuality was just one component of who he was and the music he made was just as important
It’s easy to say that I was upset because I’m just an overly emotional fangirl who turns humans into idols, and I even considered that. But the truth is, the reason it hurt so much was because I believed in this man. I listened to his music, I heard his message, saw his music videos and movies, and I thoroughly believed in him. Bowie told the world that he was bisexual, and people still loved and revered him. He strode around gallantly with pride, and in a way, it made me feel like I wasn’t a freak or a slut. I found a kind of solace in the fact that he came out nearly forty years before I did, and that society had come so much further in the space between then and now. After all this time, all those years of being a bisexual icon and role model, and then snatching it away – it is detrimental to queer young kids.
Real representation is crucial to a person in any minority. In current pop culture, we have TV shows like Blackish, Fresh Off the Boat, and The L Word. These shows have casts full of authentic representation: real people who have experienced, to some degree, non-assimilations with the majority of the population, and the struggles that come with that. Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat are shows that contain real and authentic performances of people of different ethnic backgrounds in our society. The L Word is a show about lesbians, and some of the women on the show, including cameos, are LGBT+ in real life.
These shows and characters are incredibly important, especially to younger audiences who are watching and questioning parts of their identities and how they fit into the world around them. “Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions,” argues Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman, an assistant professor of Sociology at Richmond University. If a young LGBT+ kid sees somebody who expresses themselves and isn’t publicly ostracized for it, they may feel they have a shot at a semblance of normalcy. But when that person expresses queerness, and then they reject it only after it made them famous, it’s damaging. It gives homophobic people the chance to say, “Hey, look at that guy – for him, being gay was a choice!” It allows those people to push for things like conversion therapy, or the systematic oppression of our rights to marry who we want, to work where we want, to start families how we want, and so forth.
I’m not sure of Bowie’s intentions, but it feels like a kind of dangerous cultural appropriation. Perhaps it’s like Bowie said that he wasn’t bisexual, but Ziggy was. But is authenticity really that crucial? What is the difference between having a character that is openly not-straight and being straight, versus actually being openly queer in the public eye? Ziggy was still loved and accepted and so was Bowie. And as much as I loved David Bowie for the extravagance he exuded, that was just one phase of his career, relatable to Picasso’s “Blue Period.”
The thing about Bowie is that he was ever-changing. From Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke, all the way to Jareth, the goblin king of Jim Henson’s fantastical Labyrinth, he held many faces up to the world. Alex Sharpe, a professor of law at Keele University in England states:
Bowie […] committed serial ritual suicide. Like a Gustav Metzger acid painting, Bowie dissolved before our eyes, only to be reconstituted elsewhere. To be a Bowie fan was to mourn, to let go and to learn to love again, and to become increasingly aware that this process would be repeated without end, or at least till the end, by which time, of course, it had inspired countless new beginnings.
I have to acknowledge the later days, the later music, and who Bowie was as a sum of all the characters he created. There was a purpose for each character: Ziggy was a cautionary tale of fame, sex, and rock ’n’ roll gone too far. Major Tom was most likely the character closest to the real Bowie. For example, in Bowie’s song “Ashes To Ashes”, released in 1980, he refers to Major Tom as a “junkie.” This was around the same time that Bowie was struggling with his own addiction. Furthermore, in Bowie’s 2016 “Blackstar” video, which Bowie made while he had terminal cancer, there is an astronaut’s suit which contains a skull on a strange alien planet, possibly alluding to Major Tom one last time. With each transition, he illustrated a point; “however, Bowie aimed not merely to change. He was not simply a chameleon. Rather, he always sought to ‘fuck things up’. That is, he was not concerned only with motion, but with challenging the taken-for-granted, the axiomatic, the self-evident.”
This isn’t to say that Bowie was a leader on purpose. He just expressed his thoughts and views on things without any expectation of reaction or reciprocity from the general public. In thinking about this flexibility Bowie had, I started to wonder how somebody who changed so much could really be something solidified, or finite, especially when it came to something with such fluidity as sexuality.
When we look at studies done on sexuality, and the different ways we interpret it, I can’t help but think of a moment on the TV show Orange Is the New Black. The lead character, Piper, explains to her then fiancé that her sexuality isn’t just straight or lesbian, and suggests that most people aren’t like that either. “You fall somewhere on a spectrum,” she says, nonchalantly. “You know, like on a Kinsey scale.” Before that scene, I’d never even heard of Kinsey, or his scale.
The Kinsey Scale, in layman’s terms, is a scale that helps researchers determine a person’s sexual orientation. It is based on their past experiences and their responses to questions. Alfred Kinsey, often referred to as “the Father of the Sexual Revolution,” considered sexuality to be non-binary – that is, not just one way or the other. Instead, people fell somewhere between straight and gay, respectively. The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid furthers this idea using a more intricate set up:
For each person, it sets out the seven component variables of sexual orientation, listed as A through G down the left side. The three columns indicate three different points at which sexual orientation is assessed: the person’s past, their present, and their ideal. The person then receives a rating from 1 to 7 for each of the 21 resulting combinations, one rating for each empty box.
The variables are as listed: sexual attraction, sexual behavior, sexual fantasies, and sexual identity. These variables illustrate just how complicated sexual identity really can be. When looking at Kinsey’s scale or Klein’s grid, it’s easy to see how Bowie’s statements of his own sexuality differentiate the way they do. The point of all of this is that sexuality is a very fluid thing, and it can’t fit neatly into one box. It flows over and around other boxes, constantly in motion.
So, in looking at all of this: the grid, the statements, the history of Bowie, and what real representation is, I can only come to one conclusion. It’s possible that even he didn’t entirely understand his sexuality. Bowie, at least to some degree, was bisexual. Bisexuality doesn’t change based upon who you’re with; it can fluctuate, but it doesn’t go away. No amount of conversion therapy will change that, nor can one man’s single statement from over thirty years ago. At the end of everything, what really mattered was Ziggy. It was Ziggy who gave bisexuality its voice. It was Ziggy that freed me from my bonds of silence and shame. And Ziggy, just like the Thin White Duke, Jareth the Goblin King, and Major Tom, was a piece of Bowie, however small he was. In the documentary Bowie: The Man Who Changed the World, Dana Gillespie, a close friend of Bowie’s said, “You don’t tame a man like Bowie.” That is true. Bowie was swift and ever-evolving; if you blinked, you missed it.
And while I felt hurt at first from Bowie’s eventual abnegation, I understand now that no matter who he was or what he identified as after the fact, he still changed sexuality and gender expression for the better. For the record, I still love Bowie.
American Institute of Bisexuality. (2014). The Klein sexual orientation grid. https://www.bisexuality.org/thekleingrid/
Anderson, S. (Director). (2016). Bowie: the man who changed the world [Motion picture]. A2B Media, Screenbound Productions.
Grollman, E. A. (2012, September, 24). The importance of representation: Voice, visibility, and validation in America. N.p.
Human Rights Campaign. (N.d.). The lies and dangers of efforts to change sexual orientation or gender identity. https://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy
Kohan, J., Jones, N., Kerman, P. (Writers), McCarthy, A. (Director). (2013, July 11). The chickening (Season 1, Episode 5) [TV series episode]. In J. Kohan (Executive Producer), Orange is the New Black. Tilted Productions; Lionsgate Television; Netflix.
Loder, K. (1983, May 12). David Bowie: Straight time. RollingStone.com https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/david-bowie-straight-time-69334/
Lowder, J. B. (2016, January 11). Was David Bowie gay? Slate.com. https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/01/was-david-bowie-dead-at-69-gay-the-glam-rocker-had-a-complicated-relationship-with-queerness.html
Sharp, A. (2017). Scary monsters: The hopeful undecidability of David Bowie (1947-2016). Law and Humanities, 11(2), 228-224. 10.1080/17521483.2017.1344478
Emily Baumgardner wrote this essay as “really more of a therapy session on paper for me.” In addition to moonlighting as a writer, Emily is currently earning her degree towards a day job career as a Dental Assistant.
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