David Bowie’s body, reports say, has been quietly cremated in New York. Count me among the people who, in the earliest hours of Monday morning, thought the death announcement must’ve been a hoax. The news, trickling and then flowing through friends’ social-media accounts, came from the performer’s publicist by way of Hollywood Reporter, and in the middle of the off-Broadway run of Lazarus, no less. I went to sleep disoriented, declining to accept the news as confirmed, and thinking: Is life and death the final binary needing disruption? How would a powerfully creative soul work with that?
And I thought of Romain Gary, winning the Prix Goncourt in 1975. An author is eligible for the award, for a work in the French-language, once in a lifetime. Gary, who already won it for The Roots of Heaven 19 years prior, pulled off the second triumph by penning The Life Before Us under the name Émile Ajar. In awarding the prize without knowing who Ajar was, the Académie Goncourt produced an artistic intrigue unparalleled—unless Bowie’s alive somewhere, watching all those things people have been doing and saying since Monday morning.
I first encountered Ziggy Stardust in 1976. I’d just finished a bowl of Choco Krispis and changed from my school uniform into pyjamas. Begoña, a friend of my mother’s whose flat in Mexico City was my weekend home, had the television on. When I came to the threshold to say my good-night, Begoña was staring at the performance, transfixed, repeating “Es maricón… Es maricón…” Gender fluidity was nothing they ever told us about in school; my first lesson in it lasted about ten pure minutes until Begoña noticed I was getting comfortable in front of the television and directed me to bed.
From that moment on, I would never see femininity or masculinity as separate from a social performance. From that moment on, I claimed internal permission to approach sexuality on my terms rather than the terms that the dominant culture had packaged for me. One never completely escapes that dominant culture, its penalties for dissenting, or the hydraulic pull to replicate its mistakes. And we’re still living in a culture in which gender is thought fixed, despite Monique Wittig‘s insistence that we “radically question the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ which are political categories and not natural givens.”
But ultimately every socially constructed border is transcendable.
Quentin Crisp, who published The Naked Civil Servant in 1968, had already hurtled from one side of the binary to the other in London when being gay still led to prosecutions. Eight years later, Granada Television’s adaptation of Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant would become an overnight sensation. In Crisp’s self-described youth:
My outlook was so limited that I assumed that all deviates were openly despised and rejected. Their grief and their fear drew my melancholy nature strongly. At first I only wanted to wallow in their misery, but, as time went by, I longed to reach its very essence. Finally I desired to represent it. By this process I managed to shift homosexuality from being a burden to being a cause.
And then came Bowie, with no fixed address on either side of the binary, queering it all at once, reflecting and releasing a creativity that had been largely stashed away at underground clubs and tea parties, surprising us and moving our social mores along. The year of Ziggy Stardust, 1972, was the year of Britain’s first Gay Pride rally, held in London. These events couldn’t help but enable our collective discovery of the social construction of all borders: between social classes, citizenship…even humanness is a political and economic category. When a group of our leading primatologists, scientists, lawyers and philosophers took a year to debate the wisdom of inserting human stem cells into monkey brains, they never did figure out how to ethically separate humans from other primates; nevertheless, citing Genesis, they reported: “Humans are set apart by God as morally special and are given stewardship over other forms of life.”
Any form of systematic control relies on such self-serving claims. The importance of art in disrupting such habits can’t be overstated.
Now, any discussion of Bowie and control takes us to the “troubling” story that bubbled up in this week’s commentaries, that of a rising star taking advantage of young fans’ vulnerabilities. Friendships broke apart this week as arguments flared over whether to refocus attention from our loss of an irreplaceable artist to the social cost of glossing over gendered privilege—which still permeates every sphere of society at large.
Yet this week I felt a strange, firm milestone standing out amidst the gradual peeling away of my years. I wonder if, without the influence of David Bowie, I’d have still joined the squatters’ community led by London’s Gay Youth Movement, become friends with hunt saboteurs, and become vegan. Or if, sans Bowie, I’d have led a more protected, and thus poorer, life.
Bowie’s own decisions are under critique now, in a complicated and important social dialogue about privilege, consent and respect. The critique will be better informed by the queer studies concepts that Bowie’s art helped foster. Mourning is OK.