David Bowie’s Impact On Gender And Sexuality Is Everywhere

CREDIT: Joel Ryan/Invision/AP

A retrospective of David Bowie's various costumes from the V&A Museum in West London.

When I heard the news Monday morning that David Bowie had died of cancer at age 69, having just released his 25th studio album, Blackstar, I was initially unmoved. His music had never spoken to me nor did his persona ever directly impact my life. I knew that “Under Pressure” came before “Ice, Ice Baby,” I could recognize a few tunes like “Heroes” and “Changes,” and I remembered the film Labyrinth making some kind of impression on me as a tween confused about his sexuality.

But it was immediately apparent from reactions across the globe that I was in the minority — and that Bowie has made an indelible impact on culture, particularly in terms of gender and sexuality.

David Bowie lived in a society that did not leave room for him to be his complete self. Rather than push those boundaries, he often skipped over them, exercising creative license through his imaginative and inventive concept albums and personas to be something not directly connected to reality. In doing so, he stretched those boundaries for others, who could admire his unique theatrical brand of music and extend his influence beyond the concert hall.

Though he may have resembled a hippie in his earliest days, he quickly abandoned this down-to-earth sentiment for something quite extraterrestrial. As The New York Review wrote of his style in 2013, Bowie dressed up when everyone else in pop culture was dressing down. The characters Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke defied convention and allowed him to be who he wanted to be, telling stories that reflected worlds beyond our own in which he wanted to live.

Bowie’s personal struggles reflected his almost dependence on living in the fantasy worlds he created for himself. As he said in 1973, “Offstage, I’m a robot. Onstage, I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.” He admitted that this then caught up to him, that he had doubts about his own sanity when he often couldn’t escape the personas he enjoyed playing. A few years later, he added, “My whole professional life is an act… I slip from one guise to another very easily.”

This confusion was apparent in his own sexuality, which never seemed to fit neatly into any particular label. First he was gay. Then he was bisexual. Then coming out as bisexual was the “biggest mistake I ever made,” because he didn’t ever feel that he was a “real bisexual.” He admitted to having same-sex sexual interactions, “but frankly, it wasn’t enjoyable.” In terms of sex and relationships, his own description of himself as “promiscuous” may have been the most accurate of them all, but it reflected, as in the other aspects of his life and career, defiance of convention.

Bowie’s influence runs deep in contemporary chart-toppers, but there’s an undeniable spiritual connection between him and Lady Gaga. Gaga is more often compared to the ever-self-reinventing Madonna, but perhaps only because her oddities seemed less original in the wake of a performer like Bowie. The parallels between the two cannot be denied, from the inventive fantastical nature of their styles, to the use of gender-bending alter egos, to identifying as bisexual and allowing for a degree of ambiguity around their sexualities. They’ve even both famously sung about their uneasy relationship with fame.

It’s no surprise that he is one of her idols. Though she had not met him as of two years ago, she called him her “alien prince,” and admitted, “every morning I wake up and think, ‘What would Bowie do?'” Like Bowie, she faced her own struggles with identity, recently admitting how she backed out of the spotlight to better ground herself in her own passions and her own identity.

This Gaga tangent is not an attempt draw any direct comparison between her influence or creativity and that of Bowie’s. But what is apparent is that she is a quintessential example of his legacy. If there had been no David Bowie, there would be no Lady Gaga. There would not be the same amount of room for performers to express themselves so creatively, to mesh queer culture and pop culture as so many artists now do in their own way. There would likewise not be the same latitude to challenge gender stereotypes, or to explore gender fluidity and boundary-defying sexualities that fit the individual instead of the cultural expectation.

Bowie may have explored a million dead-end streets to find himself, but it was that exploration that defined him, not any particular stop along the way. We can all face the strange a little bit more easily thanks to the changes he made for all of us.