Following the passing of David Bowie, there have been many articles about how his androgyny, gender fluidity and sexual fluidity “gave permission” to others to be the same or to be themselves in other ways. As wonderful as that is, it isn’t everyone’s story. Here’s mine. When I was in the fourth grade, Culture Club were massive. After we’d got our heads around Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit in compulsory recorder lessons, the class was allowed to choose a popular song from a limited list. As a 9 year old boy, I was already hesitant to admit that I really wanted to do the song by Culture Club, but it seemed that most of the class was keen. So, I worked around my internal tensions and showed my enthusiasm. Unfortunately for me, “most of the class” turned out to be all the girls. The boys teased and bullied me mercilessly for being a “poofter” and a “girl”, and shoved me around the playground in the breaks. This went on for days, with the name-calling continuing for years. I was a “fag”, pure and simple, even after that particular class was long forgotten (by the bullies).
Whilst I recall that I had some hesitation already instilled in me by the age of 9, these events of the fourth grade were - for me - when I began to bury myself deep within myself. That was a process that continued for another 20 years due to ongoing bullying throughout my school life, and the continual subtle and unsubtle heterosexism of family, friends, colleagues and society. (If you are unfamiliar with the word, here’s a definition of ‘heterosexism’ .)
My experience was that the likes of Bowie, Boy George, Marilyn and Annie Lennox, prompted an outpouring of vile heterosexism, which contradicted with how much I desperately wanted to relate to them in my own way, both internally and outwardly. Every comment like, “Why the hell does he dress like a woman?”, “She must be a lesbian”, and “Christ, they’re all bloody fairies and weirdos”, chipped away at me.
In the world of domestic violence, it is well understood that the most dangerous time for a survivor is when they attempt to put an end to the situation by leaving, contacting the Police, or whatever. Similarly by analogy, what I saw and experienced when these people came to the fore in the late 70s and early 80s was that the verbal and psychological violence was escalated. And, like many domestic violence survivors, the fear was too much and I stayed the way that others wanted.
The likes of Bowie did do us all an enormous favour, but it was nothing immediate. Their influence on these values is much longer-term than perhaps people understand.
Nathan Ross is a bisexual, cisgender male in an opposite-sex marriage with two step-kids, and he works as a research fellow in international climate change law, based in Wellington, New Zealand.