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How David Bowie’s “I’m Gay” Interview Helped Redefine Sexuality
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

How David Bowie’s “I’m Gay” Interview Helped Redefine Sexuality

‘I’m gay,’ declared David Bowie in a shock interview with ‘Melody Maker’, bringing gender fluidity and queer sexuality into the mainstream.

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On 22 January 1972, the British music magazine Melody Maker ran a world-changing quote from David Bowie: “I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” Printed in an article titled Oh You Pretty Thing, the quote was a revelation – not just from Bowie himself, but for a generation of music fans exploring their own sexuality at the dawn of the 70s. Here’s the story of how just one phrase set off a chain reaction of events that made Bowie one of the most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians of all time.

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The quote: “I’m gay and always have been”

Slipped into the Melody Maker article just over halfway through, “I’m gay and always have been” is the sort of quote a tabloid newspaper would have used for a headline. However, Melody Maker journalist Michael Watts built up to Bowie’s pronouncement, noting his use of words such as “varda”, lifted from the Polari slang often spoken by Britain’s gay community, and describing the rising star as “looking yummy… like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy” – every bit the kind of character Bowie had recently sung about on Queen Bitch, from his game-changing fourth album, Hunky Dory. Though Watts makes it clear that Gay Liberation is a “movement [Bowie] doesn’t want to lead”, his description of a gay fan watching rapt as Bowie performs on stage points to the LGBTQ+ community’s adoption of him as a figurehead, whether he liked it or not.

Reflecting on his piece half a century later, in The Guardian, Watts questioned some of his own language – “The original article now reads horribly coy… ‘Camp as a row of tents,’ I wrote – did I invent that phrase?” – while admitting that, faced with David Bowie in early 1972, “I wanted to be unmanly and shout: he is unreservedly fabulous.”

Fabulous, indeed. A little more than a month on from the release of Hunky Dory, Bowie had discarded the Marlene Dietrich-inspired look he sported on its sleeve, even though his interview with Melody Maker was ostensibly to promote that record. Moving with increasing speed, he now dressed in full Ziggy Stardust Mk I regalia: quilted jumpsuit; shorn, spiky hair “Vidal Sassooned into such impeccable shape”; and bright red boots which would soon straddle the world. His different coloured eyes only enhanced his otherworldly appearance. Bowie was just a week away from making his debut Ziggy Stardust performance, at Friars Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, just outside of London, and his “I’m gay” admission to Melody Maker perfectly laid the groundwork for future shocks to come.

Watts noted Bowie’s follow-up comments: “It’s just so happened, he remarks, that in the past two years people have loosened up to the fact that there are bisexuals in the world – ‘and – horrible fact – homosexuals’.” This jab at authority figures appalled by any diversions from the sexual “norm” left no misunderstanding as to whose side Bowie was on. It had been just five years since British laws were reformed into order to make homosexual acts legal for males aged 21 and over in the UK, and three years since the Stonewall Riots, in which New York City’s LGBTQ+ community protested against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village. For an up-and-coming pop icon to align himself with the queer community within the pages of a music magazine marked a huge step forward for mainstream pop culture. And more was to come.

The response: “The expression of his sexual ambivalence establishes a fascinating game: is he, or isn’t he?”

Though Watts never doubted Bowie’s sincerity, he could spot a bit of media manipulation when he saw it: Bowie “had shrewdly calculated the consequences” of his statement, Watts told The Guardian.

Writing in the original article, he observed, “There’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth. He knows that in these times it’s permissible to act like a male tart, and that to shock and outrage, which pop has always striven to do throughout its history, is a ballsbreaking process.” Having noted earlier in his piece that Bowie – married and a father to a newly born son – “supposes he’s what people call bisexual”, Watts concludes, “The expression of his sexual ambivalence establishes a fascinating game: is he, or isn’t he? In a period of conflicting sexual identity he shrewdly exploits the confusion surrounding the male and female roles.”

As far back as 1964, the 17-year-old Bowie (then still David Jones) had appeared on BBC Tonight under the title of President of the Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Long-Haired Men, wearing his own hair down to his shoulders and protesting the way he and friends with similar hairstyles were treated in public (“For the last two years we’ve had comments like ‘Darling’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us, and I think it just has to stop now”). By the early 70s, Bowie had truly immersed himself in queer culture, learning how to blur gender roles while openly courting outrage. He wore a “man’s dress” during photo shoots for his third album, The Man Who Sold The World, resulting in one of the most controversial David Bowie album covers – one that was rejected outright by his US record label. And, throughout 1971, he was a regular punter at the Sombrero club, London’s most fashionable gay hangout, whose permissive attitudes towards sexuality would permeate Bowie’s own.

Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine in 1993, Bowie confessed to being “magnetised” by the underground gay scene. “Remember, in the early 1970s it was still virtually taboo,” he explained. “There might have been free love, but it was heterosexual love… I like the idea of these clubs and these people and everything about it being something that nobody knew anything about. So it attracted me like crazy. It was like another world that I really wanted to buy into.” His revelation to Melody Maker, then, was the next stage in a crucial exploration of gender fluidity which was taking place throughout society.

“This sounds now like Daffyd in Little Britain,” Watts told The Guardian in 2006, referencing the UK TV sketch show’s “only gay in the village” character. “But it wasn’t comical then. In truth, I felt lucky.”

The aftermath: “Bowie was all anyone was talking about. He was a dangerous figure”

Pop and rock stars had flirted with androgyny before Bowie’s Melody Maker interview – not least Bowie’s glam-rock rival Marc Bolan – but, as Watts later observed, “After Bowie came le deluge.” Yet as a litany of unwaveringly heterosexual bands – Slade, Mud, Sweet – rushed to slap on the rouge and dash glitter on their eyelids, Bowie nurtured his androgynous image like no other artist – and on mainstream TV to boot.

With The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars album taking him to ever greater heights following its release in the summer of 1972, Bowie used a Top Of The Pops performance of the song Starman to stage the next part of his campaign to create controversy while bringing LGBTQ+ awareness into the mainstream. Singing in Ziggy Mk II pale-faced make-up and burnt-orange mullet, Bowie threw his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder and pointed a waggling finger directly at the camera with camp glee, knowing it would be broadcast to millions of viewers during dinner time on 6 July 1972.

“In those days Top Of The Pops could easily be watched by 14 million people, so the next day Bowie was all anyone was talking about,” cultural critic Dylan Jones told the BBC over four decades later. The author of an entire book about that moment, When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie And Four Minutes That Shook The World, Jones, who was 12 when Bowie’s TOTP performance was aired, added, “He was a dangerous figure on British TV at a point when television didn’t do danger.”

Having told the print media “I’m gay” less than six months earlier, Bowie was now flaunting homosexual gestures on nationwide television. A generation of artists who would find fame in the following decade have all spoken about the varied influence that Bowie’s Top Of The Pops appearance had on their paths as musicians – Duran Duran’s Gary Kemp, Echo And The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch and The Smiths|’ Morrissey and Johnny Marr among them – but it also allowed countless young men and women who wouldn’t find fame to feel as though they’d been spotted by their idol. And not only had Bowie noticed them, he was using his platform to reflect feelings they were perhaps not yet sure how to express themselves.

The truth: “I was experimenting”

And yet it seems as though Bowie, too, was still working himself out. In 1976, at the time of his Station To Station album, he more clearly defined himself as bisexual, telling Playboy magazine, “It’s true – I am a bisexual. But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Fun, too.”

Just as he cycled through personae to explore different facets of his personality and his creativity, Bowie’s sexuality seems to have been open for re-examination throughout his life. A decade on from his Melody Maker interview, and with the Let’s Dance album making him one of the biggest stars in the world, Bowie felt that his admission to Melody Maker had been “The biggest mistake I ever made… Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.” Ten years later, he looked back on the younger Bowie as “a closet heterosexual” who “didn’t ever feel that I was a real bisexual”, but who “was making all the moves, down to the situation of actually trying it out with some guys… I wanted to imbue Ziggy with real flesh and blood and muscle, and it was imperative that I find Ziggy and be him… That phase lasted up to about 1974.”

The legacy: “Bowie pioneered the strategy of dropping hints and claiming identities in passing”

Writing in the Slate article Was David Bowie Gay?, J Bryan Lowder noted that “Bowie pioneered the now-common pop star strategy of dropping hints and claiming identities in passing… with the (probably intended) effect of maintaining the straight public’s interest and the queer public’s devotion”. However he evolved, in private and in public, Bowie’s original declaration to Melody Maker opened the way for others to follow – and he continued to play with androgyny and queer performance throughout his career, dressing in drag in order to appear as his own girl-group backing singers in the video for Boys Keep Swinging, from 1979’s Lodger album, and, on Hallo Spaceboy, the final single from 1995’s 1. Outside album, asking the question, “Do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.”

“Artists as visionary as Bowie are necessarily complicated – they probably wouldn’t be very good otherwise,” Lowder concluded in his Slate article. Noting Bowie’s “shifting self-presentation, his chameleon-like ability to revise his artistic identity in conversation with the zeitgeist”, Lowder praised him as “a veritable innovator of gay style” who “may have bucked or played coy with identity labels” but who “understood drag – an art form arising from the fundamental (and hard-learned, for queer people) principle that we are all always performing and that masks are often a necessity in this life”.

As Bowie himself put it: “I feel confident imposing change on myself. It’s a lot more fun progressing than looking back. That’s why I need to throw curve balls.”

Delivered to an unsuspecting public at the dawn of a new era – both culturally and for Bowie himself – his “I’m gay” interview with Melody Maker was certainly one of those curveballs. Over half a century on, and with identity politics an essential a part of public discourse, it also remains one of his most impactful.

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