Content Notice for Mentions of CSA Under the Cut
This morning, I awoke to news that I thought was a hoax. So did others. But no, it isn’t: David Bowie is dead, the cause being liver cancer (the disease wasn’t public knowledge). When the news was confirmed, I shed real tears. I am a hardcore Bowie fan. He taught me that camp was not only okay, or even awesome, but that it could be high art, a statement against the very shame so often levied against it. He taught me that reinvention wasn’t just for pretty cis girls like Madonna. He taught me that children’s movies could hold subversion of not only the obvious magic-pants kind — all hail The Area — but also of the political type.
The man, one who may have dabbled in not-quite-cishet culture and imagery but was actually straight, was integral to my eventual development into a genderqueer campy femme. I’d venture to say that he has had significant influence on many if not most of us who would call ourselves queer.
Yet, my grief is hardly straightforward, and felt punctuated by a non-Bowie song.
He also had sex with at least one very young teen who was likely under the influence of both the rock’n’roll scene and its accompanying drugs*. Furthermore, he had a complicated, drug-fueled Nazi phase (he later openly regretted the Thin White Duke persona). Does my saying that eradicate any of the good he has done? Suggest that we trash his entire body of work and shun his surviving family and friends? Pretend as though his influence on certain LGBTQ+ communities doesn’t exist? No. It simply means that he was not “too good for this world,” as the sentiment I’ve seen repeated across social media and news story comment sections would have you believe. Rather, he was most definitely part of it and influenced by it as well as an influencer of it, for good and for ill.
It takes nothing away from my grief or anyone else’s to point out that he did crappy things in his past, some of which he never quite addressed. We do not live in a world divided into heroes and monsters, we live in one populated by human beings. People have the right to mourn as they please, and for me, the best way to cope is cope in a clear-eyed rather than bowdlerized way. Those who need to mourn in a more selective fashion can look away, but the sad fact remains that this, too, is part of his legacy.
I say it about Islam and Muslims all the time: You cannot begin to fix the problems within any communities without first making an honest assessment of those problems. The music industry has a sexism and sexual assault problem and historically, things have been even worse. That the sunlight being shone on it is finally hitting disinfectant level at around the time the musical idols of those prior times are dying or dead is unfortunate but necessary.
Though I’ve seen calls for people to save their talk of the less savory aspects of his life for another day, I don’t know if there is any better day than today. People have been talking about these issues for years, but nearly no one has been paying much attention. If trending algorithms help spread the word, I cannot fault anyone taking advantage of that.
*It’s hard for me to call it rape when the person in question resists the labeling of what happened to her as such. Sexual contact of any kind with a young girl is not something a single grown man should have done, though, let alone two. A 12-14 year old cannot consent to sex with an adult, especially not when drug use is involved.
Edited 1/12: He died of liver, not lung cancer, as pointed out in the comments. Also, I am fully aware that Strange Overtones is not a Bowie song but it came to mind for me for whatever reason as I was processing my thoughts yesterday. Wanted to make sure that’s clear.