David Bowie and My Queer Awakening

I rarely write about anything personal anymore. It's all op-eds, science, and political wonkiness. Yet when I woke up Monday morning to find David Bowie had died, it hit me hard. Far harder than I would have thought. It was all I could do to hold back tears often during the day. It didn't make a lot of sense to me at first, until I reflected on how David Bowie, and his music, had been so transformational for me in the past few years.

Growing up as a kid in the '80s I first knew of David Bowie as "The Goblin King," in the movie Labyrinth. I loved his costumes, and the fluid, aggressive way he moved. I didn't pursue this much further, though; a Mormon father, being told that being dead was better than gay, and hints of a one way trip to a gulag in the Utah desert were more than sufficient to ensure I quickly buried any hints of queerness in my interests.

Twenty plus years went by. I came out. I transitioned. In the process I ended up one of the only queer people in the exceedingly red, rural part of Ohio I lived in. Being an activist and writer who was immersed in anti-transgender hatred weighed upon me heavily. So did the physical rejection by my partner of 15 years, who no longer felt any attraction to me. My job left me underpaid, undertasked, and unfulfilled.

Most of the time, there didn't seem to be any escape from any of these: being alone, reviled, rejected, and pointless.

Then she came along. This queer, trans super activist in DC who had a passion for some of the same quirky, geeky things I did, and at the same time loved poetry, music, art, and theater. She was a bit younger than me, and her energy was infectious. She also saw something in me that I didn't in myself. In some ways I still don't know what that was, but it woke me up to so many possibilities, thoughts, and ideas. It was also the beginning of a resolve to escape from the things dragging me slowly under.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of this moment in time was unwinding the years of internalized transphobia I needed to unpack and get rid of. So much of this self-loathing was centered on my queerness; in both my gender expression and my sexuality and how both led to my ostracization. And this, this is where David Bowie comes in.

She introduced me to her love of Bowie while hanging out at her place in Columbia Heights. Posters of his 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails adorned the walls, and her Facebook profiles featured pictures of her at Bowie-esque Glam-Rock costume parties. She'd shared a ton of music with me before, but this went in a different direction. She had me lay back, close my eyes, and listen from the beginning that was "Space Oddity."

I was hooked then and there on that song about isolation and separation sung by a fellow queer person. As I continued to listen to song after song, I tried to guess when each was released. 1979? No, 1975. 1983? No, 1979. After missing the same way again and again, I realized that where Bowie went, pop music followed several years later. He struck me as a Nikolai Tesla-like figure: a genius in his field so far ahead of everyone else that no one could see it until many years later.

Still, this wasn't the important part.

She walked me through the personas of his early years. "I love how he plays with androgyny," she often commented, "there's something really beautiful and attractive about it." I refused to see at first, but as my own internalized transphobia ebbed a bit, it opened a window enough that I could see it too.

It wasn't just beautiful, it was amazing. Sexy and empowering in a way that said his bucket of fucks to give was empty long ago. From there, it wasn't that far a leap to accepting that queerness itself, in all its million shades, can be beautiful, sexy, and powerful too. Coming from a place where queerness was the antithesis of love, acceptance, and beauty, this paradigm shift was nothing short of radical and life changing, because I felt I could be all of these too.

Bowie, ever the sexual omnivore, also had a transgender muse and fling named Romy Haag in the 70's. He treated references to his sexual past, including being with a transgender woman, as little more important than a particularly good dessert eaten 20 years ago. The message in this struck home: being attracted to other queer people isn't something shameful.

It just is. Enjoy what you find beautiful, and keep your bucket of fucks to give empty.

I came away with so many things from both the relationship, and Bowie. Queer is beautiful. Being attracted to, and loving, other queer people is amazing. If you're going to fuck with gender, start by tearing up all the rules. You're never too old to reinvent yourself. Reinvent yourself constantly, and you'll always be ahead of the curve. Be fearless. Be different. What you do today can inspire queer people 40 years from now.

We split up almost a year ago, but still spend time together and remain close. When I saw that David Bowie had died, I tried to hold back tears, and messaged her. "David Bowie's death has really saddened me more than I could have expected. Thank you for sharing your love of his music, and making queer beautiful, with me."

She replied with one word.

"Yes."