David Bowie was destined to be an outcast from only the age of fifteen when, after getting punched in the eye by dear friend George Underwood after a scuffle over a girl, Bowie was left with a permanently dilated pupil. Bowie’s death this week came as a shock and tragic announcement to many, but perhaps no more so than to those that Bowie was not only an artist, but a hero. In embracing everything that went against society’s expectations of what it meant to be living in 1970s Britain, Bowie forced the world to reconsider its treatment of the outcast. If the coolest man on earth was an outcast, then what exactly did it mean to be part of the ‘mainstream’? Bowie was quite literally a starman on earth. He brought the stars to earth and made the dark bright. And, even though Bowie made have died, his light lingers on. In making us realise that there’s something incredibly human about feeling alien, he made us realise that we – the outcasts of the world – shine just as brightly, even when the world makes us feel eclipsed in darkness.
‘I’m gay,’ Bowie announced in 1972. ‘And always have been, even when I was David Jones.’ Bowie’s boldness to defy all social expectations at a time where you were under pressure to conform offered a hope to people of the LGBTQ community that cannot quite be put into words. He was a figurehead. He was a pioneer. He had a braveness to be himself that had previously beem unimaginable. While Bowie later retracted these statements, claiming he was bisexual in 1976 before stating he was a ‘closet heterosexual’ in 1983, this doesn’t matter. This was a time where Elton John and Freddie Mercury were still in the closet; Boy George a mere schoolboy. Homosexuality had only been decriminalised five years prior to his announcement and Bowie risked everything in doing so. He held a light up to the marginalised and let them see a vision of the future where the outcasts were supreme.
In a 1999 interview with Jeremy Paxman, Bowie described how ‘I didn’t try and identify myself or try and ask myself ‘who I was’. The less questioning I did about myself as to who I was, the more comfortable I felt. So now I have absolutely no knowledge of who I am, but I’m extremely happy.’ Indeed, Bowie taught us to embrace life and all its complexities and that trying to define ourselves often serves to limit us rather than liberate us. It’s ok to not fit in. It’s ok to not ‘know who you are’. It’s ok to reject the notion that these things are important.
David Bowie with transgender cabaret star, Romy Haag
When you conform to the society’s expectations of you, you cannot know what it truly means to be lost within yourself. You cannot known what it means to have to ‘find’ yourself, and discovery who you with a total rejection of all social expectations. When you don’t fit these societal expectations, you are forced to discover who you are on your own terms. Bowie’s constant reinvention of himself showed us that, actually, we are so much more than the labels society enforces on us. We do not simply fit in the binary opposite ‘male’ / ‘female’, ‘heterosexual’ / ‘homosexual’ tick boxes. There are infinite aspects to our personalities and Bowie taught us there is no need to commit ourselves to adjectives that are both definitive and limiting.
Of course, Bowie’s exploration of what it meant to be an individual was not always plain sailing. Bowie described his Thin White Duke persona as a ‘nasty character indeed’, and his cocaine use in this period made him increasingly detached from the world. No one said it’s easy figuring out who you are, but it’s certainly reassuring knowing that, despite how tragic something like substance abuse is, that even our heroes aren’t perfect; we all have inner demons that look to destroy us.
It was Ziggy Stardust, however, who fell as a meteorite to the earth and shook the earth to its core. Ziggy Stardust – a bisexual-alien-rock-megastar – quite literally personified the alienation many of us often feel. In 1972, Ziggy braced the Top of the Pops stage in a gold, skin-tight jumpsuit with a bright red mullet performing the little known song of ‘Starman’. His flamboyancy and overall infectious nonchalance and the utter fun he was clearly having at being this non-conforming bisexual alien showed us the bitter realities of society’s expectations of us: they are expectations that continue to exist because we do not have the confidence to embrace the ‘freakish’ side of humanity.
Bowie donned dresses; he wore make up; he met Tony Blair wearing a pair of women’s stilettos. In the video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, he embraces both sides of the gender spectrum; embracing everything from a men’s suit to a women’s PVC dress, Bowie poked fun at society on a daily basis that was both a poignant political statement while also amusing and artistic.
Trying to figure out who you are is hard. In a world that tries to categorise us by ill-fitting adjectives, Bowie’s ever-changing personas orders us to throw away the dictionary and abandon all definitions. In bringing the outcasts to the mainstream, Bowie gave a voice to the voiceless; he gave hope to the hopeless. Bowie represented a kind of freedom that had never been accomplished before; a total freedom of the self in a in a world where such freedom was unimaginable. To be Bowie was to be extraordinary. He celebrated an extravagance that did not originate in an extravagance of wealth, but an extravagance of self. He showed us an insight into a future where gender, sexuality, freakishness, are no boundaries.
Bowie taught us to embrace the hero, the alien-starman, that lies within all of us. We should not shape ourselves to suit society’s needs, but embrace our own alien humanity. There’s a heroism in embracing ourselves in a world that tells us to do otherwise. The starman may be dead, but his legacy shines on.
Words by Juliette Rowsell