How David Bowie Sexually Liberated Us All

He said he was gay, then bisexual, then married women twice and had children. All the while, he steadfastly declined to identify sexually himself in any fixed way. Good for him—and us.

01.11.16 7:25 PM ET

It may seem odd to a generation now—for whom gay pride comes with its own multi-letter acronym, LGBT—that a pop star could so radically collide and shatter traditional norms around sexuality and gender. But David Bowie did just that in the early 1970s and the challenge that he set, in terms of confronting definitions of sexuality and images of masculinity, prove as fresh today as they did then.

Coming out as I did in Britain of the late 1980s, gay men in their 30s and 40s would talk about what a revolutionary marker, a personal lightning strike, Bowie had been for them as boys and teenagers in the 1970s. Lou Reed walking on the wild side had also had his effect, but Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust, had quite literally beamed in from another planet.

According to author and cultural critic Mark Simpson, Bowie’s appearance on UK primetime institution Top of the Pops in 1972 singing ‘Starman’ “and his calculated draping of his fey arm around his gorgeous guitarist Mick Ronson was probably the most important ‘Gay Parade’ that ever happened in the UK.”

Simpson told The Daily Beast on Monday that “the first actual one had only occurred in London a few days earlier (on July 1, 1972) and was barely noticed. But Bowie’s had paraded through the living rooms of the nation. Everyone watched that show—and a generation of kids loved the apoplectic reaction Bowie provoked from their 1970s dads.”

Bowie had plenty to say about his sexuality—plenty mysterious enough to keep us all guessing and wondering to now, the end. He was post-gay and polysexual before most celebrities were brave enough to declare themselves anything but absolutely straight.

In Melody Maker in 1972, Bowie said he was gay. In 1976, he told Playboy he was bisexual, saying he had used “that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Bowie later told Rolling Stone that “I didn’t ever feel I was a real bisexual.” Ziggy Stardust was an image conferred upon him, he said, a lie—and not some radical outer manifestation of something personal.

Coming out as bisexual was the “biggest mistake I ever made.”

The irony of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie said, “was that I was not gay. I was physical about it, but frankly it wasn’t enjoyable.”

In a book about Bowie’s sex life published in 2014, Tony Zanetta, Bowie’s ex-assistant, said: “When we were in bed together, he was more sensual and narcissistic. To him, it was about being adored… I don’t think sex mattered to him.”

That same book sketched the orgies that Bowie and his first wife Angie had at their London home—she once claimed she had found Mick Jagger and Bowie in bed together.

In his straight life, Bowie and Angie—who had a son Duncan (“Zowie Bowie”) who was born in 1971—divorced in 1980. Bowie met the model Iman in 1990, marrying her in 1992, and with whom he had a daughter, Alexandria (“Lexi"), born in 2000.

Bowie also had relationships with Susan Sarandon and Oona Chaplin, widow of Charlie.

When I interviewed Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime friend and producer of many of his most memorable albums, in 2013 for The Times of London, Visconti told me that Bowie and Iggy Pop had not had a relationship when they lived together in Berlin in 1977, while Bowie was breaking up with Angie.

“We got drunk a lot. But he lived a very spartan life. Iggy had his bedroom, David had his.”

Iggy Pop tweeted his own tribute to Bowie this morning.

As for Bowie’s sexuality, Visconti told me, “I never witnessed him with a boyfriend. I certainly think he wanted people to think that, but his main squeezes were always women.

“There was such homophobia back then. He said the best tactic was to go the other way and shock people. He said Ziggy Stardust was a persona, but it confused people. I hear people even now saying, ‘You work with that queer’. It’s never been dropped completely.”

On Monday, Visconti released a statement in tribute to Bowie. “David always did it his way and his way was the least obvious way. He was a true genius who proved it over and over again through groundbreaking albums. I co-produced his new album Blackstar. He sang with powerful energy and determination, his performances were brilliant. He will live forever in our hearts, mine especially.”

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Bowie’s influence, culturally, persists today in every male pop star who doesn’t present a cookie-cutter heterosexual image and whose images blur boundaries. There’s a visible cultural and aesthetic lineage linking the Bowie influence to musicians as diverse as Boy George and Adam Lambert.

On the BBC chat show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross in 2002, Bowie was asked by the fearlessly nosy Ross about his sexual orientation.

What was the deal? Ross asked. Was Bowie gay, bisexual, trisexual?

“I was just very, you know… I just got my leg over a lot,” Bowie said, clearly wanting to be discussing anything else.

Ross persisted. Had Bowie had relationships with men?

“Not if I could help it. I was incredibly promiscuous, and I think we’ll leave it at that.”

Why should he tell Ross anything else, Bowie joked, when he could make a fortune writing it up as a book himself.

Ross wasn’t done: he said he’d never tried “man-on-man, man-in-man,” although he had been tempted recently by David Beckham.

Should he give gay sex a try, Ross asked Bowie.

“Such a serious and a life-challenging and changing question,” Bowie said slowly and grandly. “The answer that I have for you would probably create such turmoil in your soul. I’m not sure that you could actually withstand it or in fact last the rest of the show. I’m afraid I will have have to politely and reluctantly not answer that question.”

That veil of mystery and intrigue, thirty years after he had mesmerizingly first cast it as Ziggy Stardust, spoke realms for Bowie, and the inspirational public duty he performed in muddying our sexual waters.

In our modern era of classification and categories, Bowie always refused an easy label. There wasn’t one that suited him.

In his refusal to label himself, there didn’t appear to be a cowardice, but rather an honesty and maturity around how unfixed, at least for him, the notion of sexuality was. That proved to be its own liberation, or at least freeing, moment for so many of every kind of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Bowie didn’t of course turn out to be the ‘Gay Elvis’ that many gay people hoped for,” Mark Simpson told the Daily Beast. “But by flagrantly refusing to be restrained by ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ expectations and becoming a study in male beauty and glamour, he offered an inspiration to millions, whatever their gender or sexuality.

“Bowie was a prototype of metrosexuality—which is in many ways the 21st Century High Street, off-the-peg version of his 1970s experimentalism.

“Whatever the ‘truth’ of Bowie’s sexuality, he outed male bisensuality, big time. A priceless, liberating legacy—whatever your gender or sexuality.”