David Bowie and Gender Identity

by Ashley D Fuentes and Nathan Schiele

Expression was his specialty, and David Bowie surely knew how to perform it. Even after his death (see Image 1), Bowie continues to remain a queer icon that is known for breaking away from heteronormativity, and his renditions of gender performance. He is known for being the first prominent male British pop star to label themselves as something other than heterosexual, and with that, he helped foster queer sociability outside established gay scenes, providing “a rallying call for those who may themselves feel alienated.” (Chapman. 27) Along with this, he traveled through time and space with characters he created, all having their own theatrical performances that helped question our notion of gender and sexuality. This artist helped push the boundaries of queerness with his alter egos and influenced many who didn’t fit the conventional binaries in our society. Through decades of personas and styles, each of them uniquely rejecting our  mythical norms, David Bowie easily became a primary influencer for the queer community.

Image 1. Fans gathered in Brixton, David Bowie’s place of birth, to mourn his death (2016)

David Jones existed before Bowie. He would perform in bands, like The Manish Boys, and in the first three years of his career, he would release ten singles with no success (see image 2).

Image 2. David Jones in the “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” Single 

 Jones would participate in the city’s bohemian countercultures, which would later shape his theatrical endeavors, drawing queer and underground symbols from these cosmopolitan backgrounds. During this time, homosexuality was highly criminalized, that is until the 1967 Act, where police couldn’t prosecute people for their private actions, helping to open a space for cautious toleration. That same year, to separate himself from Monkees’ singer, Davy Jones, previously going by David Jones, would change his name and go by who we know now: David Bowie. After so many tries, success finally hit in 1969, when his single “Space Oddity” made it onto the UK singles chart, and in 1972, he came out in an interview as gay (see Image 3). Bowie was able to rise to stardom and open about his sexuality, and by doing so, he helped influence the country’s politics about queer identities. 

Image 3. David Bowie comes out in a Melody Maker Magazine interview. 

Even the way the music press would report as opposed to not reporting on artists’ sexual orientations before he came out, was affected. Though there were a lot of backlashes, “the discussion about Bowie’s sexual identity and queer culture was a noteworthy step in bringing Britain’s previously hidden sexual cultures out the close.” (Patrick. 22) He helped create an influence throughout the community by coming out, and that was only the beginning.

Image 4, David Bowie in the cover of his 1971 album The Man Who Sold the World.

Starting in the early 1970’s following his breakout single Space Oddity, Bowie was thrusted into the spotlight of the British rock scene where he struggled to effectively present himself and his sexual identity as a bisexual man. Homosexuality and gender fluidity, which was still heavily regulated within the public and private spheres within the United Kingdom, became prominent subject matters within his following albums The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory. During these periods of his career, Bowie was much more recognizably feminine in the style he modeled, often sporting dresses and long hair in contrast to short hair and button down dress shirts commonly seen by most British men (see Image 4). The immeasurable backlash that he received due to his more feminine aesthetic led Bowie to alter his approach to stardom and to utilize his power as a musical icon to make change for the queer community both within Britain and abroad. Thus, Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s first recognizable character, was born. 

Image 5, David Bowie as “Ziggy Stardust.”

Ushering in the newfoun era of Glam Rock, Ziggy embraced vibrant, tighter and more revealing clothing which “allowed him the space to challenge the normalizing images of masculinity” (Bradley). The character is strategically more explicit in his sexual expression which assisted in normalizing gender fluidity within Britain. Ziggy marks the first persona that Bowie adopts within his career and highlights the performative relationship that he takes on with his sexual expression and gender identity that is often related to the Drag community. Bowie utilized his performance as Ziggy Stardust and its popularity both within and without the queer community was used to “subversive effect of drag [to] foster queer sociability outside of established gay scenes” (Glen). But apart from its influence socially, this marked the beginning of Bowie’s struggle as an artist to discover his own identity separate from the performative sphere. Comparing his own identity as David Bowie as “a robot” while he was able to “achieve emotion [as] Ziggy.”

Image 6, David Bowie as “Aladdin Sane.”

Following the retirement of the massive social icon Ziggy Stardust, Bowie transitioned into other styles and personas that were explicitly less extravagant in their physicality as well as in their expressions of sexuality and gender. The first of which was Aladdin Sane, a short-lived persona designed to “americanize”’ Ziggy Stardust for the titular album in 1973 (see Image 6). Often confused with Ziggy due to the similar hair and make-up style, Aladdin Sane was considered by Bowie as a character who “mutates beyond gender” and who was designed to more directly commentate on the gender politics of the era. However, Bowie ultimately considered the character to fall short of his aims of escaping the image of Ziggy Stardust and the pop-culture association that the character made with queer culture.

Image 7, David Bowie as “The Thin White Duke.”

However, the more critically acclaimed and provoking of the immediate personas following Ziggy was The Thin White Duke, which Bowie donned for the majority of the late 1970’s through his studio albums Station to Station and Low (see Image 7). Dressed in a white button up and a black vest with short cut, slicked back blonde hair, this character is noticeably more gender comformative than Bowie presented himself both before and during his Ziggy Stardust period. Seemingly less in opposition towards traditional gender representation, Bowie’s persona as the Thin White Duke in reality serves to parody and recontextualize the traditional masculine image. According to Bradley, the Thin White Duke “still retained a camp sensibility” in his embracement of masculine fashion of the 1970s “which can be viewed as a political act” (Bradley). The character was a culmination of Bowie’s frustrations with stardom and battle with drug addiction while performing in Los Angeles throughout the 1970’s and ultimately led to a more cynicism in his work during the era. Following the retirement of The Thin White Duke in the late 1970’s, Bowie’s character oriented artistry lessened and altogether disappeared with more empowerment to take ownership of his identity separate from the personas of his career.

From the beginning of David Jones to Bowie, to the amazing characters he created, he has continuously been able to question our traditional views of gender and sexuality and resist our ideas of hegemonic masculinity. He has become a revered artist throughout his time, everyone recognizing his iconic characters and symbols that he used during his career. One thing he will always be remembered for is his gender performance along with his sexuality, which brought change to happen among Britain and abroad. He inspired many with his expression, making him have an important role in the LGBT+ community and music in general (see Image 8). Bowie was a legendary artist, and due to his resistance to the binaries of gender and sex, he was able to become a primary influence for the queer community and create change through his personas and styles. 
Image 8. A book that includes Bowie’s influence in queer culture and music.

Image 8. A book that includes Bowie’s influence in queer culture and music.

BBC. (n.d.). David Bowie celebrated by fans in Brixton. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/entertainment-arts-35287268.

Bradley, P., & Page, J. (2017). David Bowie – the trans who fell to earth: cultural regulation, Bowie and gender fluidity. Continuum (Mount Lawley, W.A.), 31(4), 583–595. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2017.1334389

Brown, M. (2018, June 20). David Bowie Aladdin Sane photograph gifted to V&A museum. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/20/david-bowie-aladdin-sane-allbum-photograph-donated-victoria-albert-museum.

Bullock, D. W. (2017, September 7). David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books/about/David_Bowie_Made_Me_Gay.html?id=VuSxDwAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description.

Chapman, I. (2015). Ziggy’s Urban Alienation: Assembling the Heroic Outsider. In T. Cinque, C. Moore & S. Redmond (Eds.). Enchanting David Bowie: Space/Time/Body/Memory (pp. 27–48). New York: Bloomsbury Academic. Retrieved July 1, 2021, from http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781501304781.ch-002

Finck, S. (2018, September 19). “Come Tomorrow, May I Be Bolder Than Today?”: PinUps, Striptease, a… Miranda. Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone / Multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal on the English-speaking world. https://journals.openedition.org/miranda/12497.

Glen, P. (2017) ‘Oh You Pretty Thing!’: How David Bowie ‘Unlocked Everybody’s Inner Queen’ in spite of the music press, Contemporary British History, 31:3, 407-429, DOI: 10.1080/13619462.2016.1261696

Molloy, M. (2016, December 26). When David Bowie Was the Thin White Duke – PHOTOS. Time. https://time.com/4598921/david-bowie-thin-white-duke/. 

Posted by Longreads on February 22, & Longreads. (2020, July 3). How David Bowie Came Out As Gay (And What He Meant By It). Longreads. https://longreads.com/2017/02/22/how-david-bowie-came-out-as-gay-and-what-he-meant-by-it/.

You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving. Wikiwand. (n.d.). https://www.wikiwand.com/en/You%27ve_Got_a_Habit_of_Leaving.

Ziggy Stardust (character). David Bowie Wiki. (n.d.). https://davidbowie.fandom.com/wiki/Ziggy_Stardust_(character).

 

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