I was delighted to read Huw Lemmy's essay on why gay men don't see Freddie Mercury as a gay icon. A nuanced and thoughtful take on the subject, and chimed with a frustration I've been feeling for quite some time.
In the (mostly online, mostly younger) spaces I've been in, Mercury and Bowie are routinely cited as gay icons - and it grates with me. It reinforces the findings of Lemmy's poll - that contemporary people are far more certain that these artists were out-as-gay-and-iconic, than people who remember being gay in the 80s do.
When I try to bring it up, these questions are often taken as a question of biography: who was this celebrity sleeping with? But this is one of the least interesting questions, unless you are a biographer - and it usually implies fixing someone within a firm, retroactive box, which is one of the least interesting ways to talk about a sexuality. We can talk more authoritatively about social perceptions of performers - both during their career heydays, and now. And we can talk about what it means to be iconic, a term which is a little more than just being some kind of queer.
What grates with me is that the artists best-known for exemplifying the queer energy of the 1980s were closeted throughout their careers. Mercury headed a band with a predominantly straight fanbase, and initially announced he had caught HIV from a bad blood transfusion after a motorcycle accident. Bowie came out as gay in the 70s to sell records, and then as straight in the 80s also to sell records, leaving the truth as something of an open question - but the sense of cynicism assured. As contemporary people, we can take pleasure in what we now recognise as queer affects or queer lyrics, or re-read their texts from a queer perspective, assigning a retroactive sense of the Icon; individuals create their liberation through these images.
It's telling to me, however, that these are two of the most successful recording artists of the 80s; and along with Elton John and George Michael and Liberace, that success rested on the closet. Both having a straight persona in the media, and producing music that was palatable and reassuring in form and content to a straight audience.
The character of Maxwell Demon in Velvet Goldmine was based on both Bowie and Jobriath; but, of course, you've only heard of one of those names. Jobriath was openly gay when he got a recording contract - not dropping it into interviews after he was already successful - and died of AIDS in 1983, the same year Bowie claimed to have been straight all along because his gay persona was causing him difficulty in the American market. In 1983, Frankie Goes to Hollywood got into hot water for their obscene video filmed in a leatherclub in which naked Roman emperor and a drag queen watch imperiously as the band writhe in a pile and while being spurted with cum - advertised with photos of the lead singer wearing rubber gloves and a sailor's cap, with the caption ALL THE BOYS LOVE SEA MEN - and sold well off the controversy. In 1984, Bronski Beat recorded songs about being gaybashed and running away from home, on the explicitly political Age of Consent. My cassette tape contains a liner including the ages of consent for gay men in various contries, and the telephone numbers for gay helplines. Bronski Beat performed at events opposing Thatcherism and supporting the miners strikes, reportedly broke up over whether it was selling out to tour with Madonna, and some members reformed as the even more politically-explicit Communards. In 1984, Sylvester was releasing lyrics over Cowley beats in which "The boys in the bedroom lovin' it up, Shootin' off menergy"; by then, Cowley was already dead. (For all that the high-camp of I Want To Break Free is cited as a clearly queer touchpoint - it comes across as laddish, part of a long tradition of blokes dressing up for a laugh - only clealy visible as queer through our later understanding and longings. It has none of the frailty of Sylvester's tender, defensive cross-dressing on Mighty Real)
What makes these performances queer is not who the performers were shagging in private, but what they put out into the world: their willingness to be visible. These were the were the cracks of light in the 1980s, the first tentative steps into the public eye; for all that our memories of the 80s as a very gay decade are solidifes by a post-hoc reclamation of Mercury's leatherclad struts as empowerment, to be there at the time felt quite different. There seems to be subconscious act of forgetting. The 80s was the era of certain bands; the 80s was the era of vocal gay activism; these performers were gay; and so, they form part of the same memory, the way 20th Century Boy reminds us less of 1973 than 'I Love 1973' nostalgia television shows. And there's choices about what we remember: Bowie's 1974 pose as gay, we decide, is the true one; his later poses as straight or as a fascist, we prefer to dismiss - despite there being not much evidence either way for any of them.
The term "gay icon" has also historically been linked with the fgure of the diva. But these are not just women who are fabulous or hard-as-nails or melancholic; more often than not, they are women who publically spoke up for the gay community in dark times. Liz Taylor, Liza Minelli, Joan Rivers were all in AIDS activism in the late 80s; Princess Diana used her star persona to be photographed touching AIDS patients; Cher became a vocal PFLAG mom; Gaga and Janet Jackson are both queer artists, who openly sing and campaign for their gay audiences; Judy Garland's life was filled with gay men, with whom she visited bars and other social occasions. Kylie Minogue was aware of her gay audience from the late 80s, and set out to perform at those venues going foward. One could argue that straight women have more privilege to publically ally themselves with gay causes than gay people themselves; still, it is for this that they were and are loved.
I worry about the elevation to the rank of the Icon those who chose to avoid risk, as opposed to those who bravely took it; and additionally, I worry about the dominance of this myth over artists who are living as out now (why is Bowie always the go-to androgynous icon of choice, over Boy George or Janelle Monae - both affirmatively out, both still performing, both still alive). There's an attraction to the blank canvas, perhaps. We can step away from the raw and messy reality of 1980s activism, and stay in a fantasy world, with a fantasy performer who can embody the fantasies of queerness we need - far better than the grungy reality of human beings. I worry that, in part, what we're seeing is the reward for cowardly choices made: the choice to stay closeted open doors to bigger stages and successful careers, getting them first into the popular consciousness as stars, and then only retroactively as gay ones. In contrast with those more cult artists who were out in the 80s, playing to (always smaller, always poorer) gay audiences, and here they remain out of view, the preserves of those in-the-know,
What I'm pointing to is a sense of reciprocity. We reward our own. When by omission, like Mercury, or open rejection, like Bowie, a performer makes clear they are not like us, it is hard for me to canonize them. If I have a platform in which to speak about performers, I consider the platform their closets granted them with straight establishments more than sufficients; and my platforms will be used to celebrate those who were denied it. We support our own, we support one another: and so our support must go to those who were there for us, and we will be there for them in turn.
I wonder if the differing opinions here are a reflection of our journeys as queer people. My husband and I both had terrible coming-out experiences, and are living with the lifelong consequences of that - I do not think either of us would describe queerness as happiness or pride, instead as a more complex thing where everything must be paid for, and some debts are overdue. It forms a particular worldview: to be queer is to have something at stake. Meanwhile, to publically deny your queerness in 1983 once it no longer serves you is the essence of where biphobia comes from; the fear that your brothers are not like you, can walk away, can not only drop you to return to the benefits of straight privilege but do so by stabbing you in the front. It's asking "what, specifically, about this artist makes you feel good?" When I see these performers, I don't, in fact, see the power and pride of a gay person unashamedly themselves on stage; these things were never true
There's also the contrast between the personal and the collective. When I encounter younger queer Bowie and Queen stans, there's always a sense that these artists are personally meaningful - personal avatars or inspirations; and this kind of subjectivity is always ok, in its own way. And yet, there is a problem with elevating someone to the iconic over "what this person means to me" - rather than "what this person meant for our community" or "what this person did to deserve canonisation". And it undermines the distance between different community groups. As a Chap of a Certain Age, it's less that I need younger people to agree with me, than I want these histories to be remembered. It's not the end of the world if encountering Bowie makes a kid feel good. But the insistant drumbeat that these performers were not only universally seen as gay at the time, by everybody but also acknowledged and loved as queer icons, by everybody - needs urgent re-evaluation, if our histories are to hold meaning.
The 80s was a complex decade; it deserves an equally nuanced response.