Magazine Feature

David Bowie, Sexuality and Gender: A Rebel Who Changed the Face of Music

david bowie
Andrew Kent

David Bowie in Paris in 1976.

When homosexuality was still considered a shameful secret to many, Bowie told the world he was gay, and music -- and the lives of many of his fans and followers -- would never be the same.

"I'm gay," declared David Bowie, "and always have been, even when I was David Jones."

When he uttered these now-immortal words in the Jan. 22, 1972, issue of England's Melody Maker, the fledgling starman had just released December 1971's Hunky Dory and already was giving his interviewer a taste of his glam-rock milestone, June 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. The British Parliament had only decriminalized homosexuality in 1967; post-­Stonewall U.S. gay life was not yet 3 years old.

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He wasn't the first U.K. pop singer to come out (that was Dusty Springfield in 1970); he did it while newly married to Angie Bowie, months after fathering future film ­director Duncan Jones. But Bowie led the way in contextualizing pop through LGBT identity. The Hunky Dory song "Queen Bitch" is sung in gay vernacular ("She's so swishy in her satin and tat!") from the perspective of a participant in gay life and set to buzzing guitar chords clearly cribbed from The Velvet Underground, which earlier chronicled this gender-mutable world through its ties to Andy Warhol, who had a Hunky Dory tune written about him too.

That same year, Bowie scored a U.K. hit with "John, I'm Only Dancing," a wham-bam of pansexual knowingness considered too outre for U.S. release until his ChangesOneBowie collection in 1976. That was when Cameron Crowe prodded Bowie to tell Playboy, "It's true -- I am a bisexual. But I can't deny that I've used that fact very well."

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By then, Bowie's glam had transformed Elton John from stern balladeer to Technicolor rocker; gave ex-Velvets leader Lou Reed his first smash (the Bowie-produced account of Warhol's stupendously queer Factory, "Walk on the Wild Side"); shook U.K. pop out of its post-Beatles doldrums through glam-rockers Sweet, Slade, T. Rex and so many others; and shaped Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman's final signings before handing the reins to David Geffen: Those were Jobriath, an even more whimsical dandy, and Queen. And through his R&B radio ­success with "Young Americans" and "Fame," Bowie bolstered disco's early link between clandestine gay dance halls and ­defiantly upscale soul. He used his outsider stance not simply to be breathtaking; he also built bridges.

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You can bet his sartorial influence on the cross-dressing New York Dolls and sponsorship of both Mott the Hoople (he wrote and produced "All the Young Dudes") and Iggy Pop similarly paved a confrontational path for what became punk. And when he went electronic in the late '70s, he begat Gary Numan, The Human League and the New Romantic club scene of Culture Club and Duran Duran. Suddenly, England's New Wave was awash with baby Bowies both male (Spandau Ballet) and female (Eurythmics' Annie Lennox) that filled the first playlists of MTV. Even disco's Grace Jones fully ­actualized her ­freakiness when she covered the Bowie/Pop tune "Nightclubbing," which set a stage for today's art-pop transgressions of Lady Gaga and Janelle Monáe.

"I loved how he challenged people about how gender was represented," says Adam Lambert of Bowie's beyond-music contributions. Married to Iman, a Somali-American, since 1992, Bowie let unconventionally matched and gendered ­heteros know their nonconformity would be cool too. They could all be heroes, each and every day.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.