By 1976, a year after “Fame” topped the charts in the United States, David Bowie was becoming, well, famous. No longer well known just in the United Kingdom, where he’d already had hits in “Spaceman” and the Ziggy Stardust-era “Starman,” Bowie was becoming a global phenomenon. So he up and…moved to Berlin? The reason why is at the centre of not only Bowie’s identity as an artist but his influence on culture in general.
According to a retrospective on Bowie’s life produced by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, at least one reason for Bowie moving to Berlin was Romy Haag — a transgender nightclub owner. Bowie and Haag were lovers, and Haag has been called Bowie’s muse. Bowie created three albums while in Berlin and Haag’s influence supposedly can be seen, for instance, in “Boys Keep Swinging,” a song plainly about male privilege with jabs at heteronormativity (“When you’re a boy, other boys check you out.”); the video featured a suit-clad Bowie with three female backup dancers who were played by Bowie in drag.
Let’s face it, David Bowie might have been the world’s first transgender ally — before we had words like “transgender” or even “ally” in our vernacular. He was also one of the first famous gay allies. Bowie “came out” as gay in a 1972 interview long before the likes of Freddie Mercury or Elton John had even hinted at coming out of the closet. Later, Bowie said he was bisexual — in 1970 he married his first wife, a model named Angie, after they met because they were sleeping with the same man. Much later, Bowie said that saying he was bisexual was “the biggest mistake I ever made” because he didn’t feel like a “real bisexual.” “I’ve always been a closet heterosexual,” Bowie said. But even in his own searching, Bowie was illustrating a fluidity of sexuality that many still have trouble grasping.
Let’s face it, David Bowie might have been the world’s first transgender ally—before we even had words like “transgender” or even “ally” in our vernacular.
And Bowie was playing with gender and gender presentation in a way that also seems prescient if not downright groundbreaking. Consider Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s “bisexual androgynous alien rockstar” persona who had flaming red hair and wore a skin-tight multi-colour bodysuit. And in a 1972 live televised performance as Stardust, Bowie put his arms around his guitarist Mick Ronson and “looked seductively into his eyes.” Then, 15 million viewers of the live broadcast watched Bowie/Stardust give a simulated blow job to Ronson’s guitar. Dylan Jones, who wrote an entire book about the three-and-a-half minute performance, called the moment “thrilling, slightly dangerous, transformative.” “It felt like the future had finally arrived,” he wrote.
At a time when performers in America were characteristically dressing down — “affluent, suburban kids disguised as Appalachian farmers or Canadian lumberjacks,” Ian Buruma wrote in the New York Review of Books — Bowie was dressing up. Or, arguably, dressing out — out of the strictures and norms of traditional masculinity. At the V&A’s Bowie exhibit, the sense one walked away with was of Bowie as changeling — that there was no way to characterise Bowie except to say he was beyond characterisation. The only way to sum up his various costumes and personas is to say they can’t be summed up — that their cumulative effect is to represent the full spectrum of human expression and suggest that spectrum can be singularly inhabited by one person, or by implication any of us.
In other words, David Bowie may not have been transgender but he was definitely trans: transforming and transgressing and traversing all of the boundaries and norms and ideas of gender to which society, in the 1960s and 1970s and still very much today, was actively clinging.
For me, it’s hard to think about David Bowie without picturing Labyrinth, the 1986 film in which he starred, a favourite of mine as a child and now one of my 7-year-old’s favourites, too. In Labyrinth, we’re all the Jennifer Connelly character — the young naive trying to follow the maze as though it’s linear and non-changing — while David Bowie’s goblin king sits at the centre of the ever-changing and evolving puzzle. Even when we eventually “solve” the maze, we learn that’s not the point. The ground shifts, literally. The ceiling becomes the floor. Up becomes down.
We were never supposed to go anywhere but simply to find ourselves, guided by David Bowie singing for us all the infinite possibilities. Bowie was an artist in the truest, most original sense. With his music, with his personas and with his life, he painted a vision for a future we’re only just now starting to inhabit. And it’s amazing.