When I was a young child, I saw the cover of the VHS edition of Labyrinth in a catalog, pointed to Jareth, and said to my mom, “She’s pretty!” My mom replied, “That’s David Bowie, hon. The one that sings ‘Rebel, Rebel.’” Not only did it not bother me, but also introduced me to a new world: androgyny.
I never felt comfortable being a boy, but I also never felt like I was a “woman trapped in a man’s body.” I always felt like I was somewhere in between. In my teen years, I realized not only did I like girls, but I also thought boys were cute (this was before I learned about nonbinary genders). I never came out about my feelings about my sexuality and gender until much later in life, though. I felt like I was neither gay enough nor transgender enough to say anything about it.
As I struggled to find the words that described my sexuality and gender, Bowie made it okay to live in the gray area. He transcended sexual and gender binaries with his Ziggy Stardust persona, and his music made freaks feel comfortable in their own skins. One of my favorite Bowie songs is “Kooks,” which he wrote for his son Zowie (now Duncan). The lyrics offer comfort for all the square pegs born into a world of round holes:
And if you ever have to go to school Remember how they messed up this old fool Don't pick fights with the bullies or the cads 'Cause I'm not much cop at punching other people's dads And if the homework brings you down Then we'll throw it on the fire And take the car downtown
More recently, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” became a lullaby for me during a bad insomnia spell. As I tossed and turned all night long overwhelmed with adult responsibilities and childhood memories, I began to sing to myself:
Oh no love! You're not alone You're watching yourself but you're too unfair You got your head all tangled up but if I could only Make you care Oh no love! Tou're not alone No matter what or who you've been No matter when or where you've seen All the knives seem to lacerate your brain I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain You're not alone
Of course Bowie wasn’t a saint. Much has been said about the fact he slept with a thirteen-year-old groupie back in the ‘70s. There are absolutely no excuses for this, and yet I also can’t deny the lasting impact Bowie made on me. It’s like when my grandmother died: she had a violent temper, but she also took my mother and me in when my father abandoned us. I think Aoife O’Riordan said it best:
So that’s what I’m going to try to do: try to get comfortable with the discomfort of the grey area. To understand that a glorious oddball can also be someone protected from consequence by his position in the world. To see genius and abuse not as reflections of monsters or angels, but simply things that people do. Real, complicated, screwed up things and people. To try to understand more about the why of it all, since all of it is part of our common humanity whether we like it or not. To acknowledge that I love and am inspired by so much music this man created, and that I’m going to be as saddened by his loss and transported by his music as I’m furious at what he did. And in that discomfort, working towards a culture where rich, white, extraordinarily talented men don’t get a licence to abuse with impunity.
So goodnight, Major Tom. Goodnight, Ziggy Stardust. Goodnight, Aladdin Sane. Goodnight, Thin White Duke. Goodnight, David Bowie. So long, and thanks for all the music.
Trav Mamone is a genderqueer bisexual Humanist writer based in Easton, MD. They , blog at freethoughtblogs.com/bianymeans, and host the Bi Any Means Podcast.