The news of David Bowie’s death, at 69, from cancer, broke late Sunday night. Most people in the US awoke to read the news, and Monday was filled with hurriedly published obituaries, and then appreciations from critics, fans, and celebrities and notables from all over the world.
Bowie was a rock star of some note. He broadened the musical and thematic borders of the 1970s with a series of garish stage characters—personae, the critics called it—who played all manner of music. The doomed rocker Ziggy Stardust; the transvestite on the cover of the album Hunky Dory; the epicene Aladdin Sane (a pun on “a lad insane”); the swellegant Thin White Duke, with his self-styled “plastic soul.” And that was just the 1970s, before he moved firmly into the mainstream with his MTV-friendly “Let’s Dance” phase and the following several decades as beloved elder statesman of rock.
One aspect of Bowie’s life was left out of much of the tributary coverage, however. You could read Jon Pareles’ obituary in The New York Times Monday morning and not learn that Bowie was the first major rock star to say he was gay. You could read Elyssa Gardner* in USA Today and not hear about it, either. The obituary on CNN left it unsaid, as did the Wall Street Journal. Even hipper online outlets like Slate ignored that element of Bowie’s life in their obituaries.
What’s going on?
Bowie was already married and a recording artist when he first declared his sexuality to a British music journalist: “I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones” (his given name). Later, he would allow that he was bisexual, and he always spoke frankly, even dismissively, about sexual matters in a way that was unique at the time.
This aspect of his life, too, was ignored in most major obituaries. A CNN report, for example, went out of its way to mention Bowie’s involvement in a “schoolboy fight over a girl.” Bowie’s own contemporary version of his life then was much different. He told Playboy:
So it was some very pretty boy in class in some school or other that I took home and neatly fucked on my bed upstairs.
As he grew older, such talk became less a part of his public life. In the 1980s he told Rolling Stone he was a “closet heterosexual,” and, as all the obituaries noted, he was married to his second wife, the model Iman, the last 20 years of his life.
A few outlets took the time to put his sexuality into context—like this story in the New York Daily News, and this one, if somewhat backhandedly, in the Washington Post. Later in the day, Slate posted another article discussing the singer’s sexuality from the point of view of gender studies.
Bowie’s openness and his gender-bending dress were a hugely important part of music’s—and society’s—evolution. This would seem to be worth noting in an obituary.
It was also one other thing: illegal.
Britain’s attitude toward homosexuality has been historically severe. It was punishable by death into the 1800s. Oscar Wilde, a flamboyant celebrity much like Bowie, had been imprisoned and had his life destroyed for being gay. Bowie was born in 1946. Even then, homosexual acts between men were still a good way to get thrown into prison. Alan Turing, the noted cryptologist who helped Britain win the Second World War, was chemically castrated for homosexuality. He committed suicide in 1954.
By midday on Monday, The New York Times posted a link to tributes to Bowie from around the world, including encomiums from “Madonna and the archbishop of Canterbury.”
“ ‘The archbishop acknowledged,’ ” I cracked on Twitter, ” ‘that many of his predecessors would have enjoyed drawing and quartering Mr. Bowie.’ “
The country’s laws began to be relaxed in the mid-1960s, but homosexual acts were still criminalized when Bowie came out. They weren’t entirely decriminalized until 2000.
Rock and roll, for all its supposed honesty and thumb-in-your-eye attitudinalism toward societal mores, was never particularly open about being gay. Leaving aside ’50s rock pioneer Little Richard, whose sexuality might best be described as boundless, Bowie seems to have been the first major musician to talk publicly in a straightforward way.
A few years later, Elton John declared himself bisexual in a Rolling Stone interview; but, leaving aside certain disco performers, coming out still wasn’t seen as a good career move. One of the biggest bands of the 1970s and 1980s, Queen, had a closeted lead singer, Freddie Mercury; he died of AIDS in 1991. His sexual orientation wasn’t mentioned in his Times obituary. A memorial concert held the following year with an impressive lineup of stars was billed as benefiting AIDS research, but during the actual show the disease, much less Mercury’s sexual orientation, was barely mentioned.
There were, of course, gay rockers along the way–Janis Joplin is widely thought to have been bisexual—but it was not spoken of at the time. In the last few decades, a few stars, notably the Who’s Pete Townshend and Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, have said they were bisexual during their early careers.
However rushed their obituaries might have been, journalism shouldn’t take pride in the work that resulted. The coverage of the acclaimed life of David Bowie is one of those cases where ignorance and some misplaced niceties left a historic piece out of a celebrated life–and out of a much-persecuted group as well.
Correction: The original version of this story had the wrong name for the author of the USA Today piece.Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon.com. Follow him @hitsville.