The people who truly, madly, deeply, influence our lives, who help us drive our lives and not simply be driven, are few. Some we know intimately, some we know from afar, and some we know only through the lens of history and books.
It was my older, dangerous, dramatic, cousin George who introduced me to Bowie. I was 12 and had just started high school. Old enough to know I was ‘different’ without really having the words. Not old enough to know that ‘it gets better’, still less that ‘you are not alone’. And then I saw the Ziggy Stardust album cover on the floor of my cousin’s room.
Later I would discover that most of my friends’ first reactions on seeing Ziggy were “is that a man or a woman?” But mine was different. Mine was simply “ah-hah”. Though it would be many years before I could articulate this, I knew viscerally at that moment that this world where gender and sexuality could be fluid and indeterminate was my world. I knew that to be this different might be ok. I knew that I was not alone.
Like Handel, the Buzzcocks and the Clash, Ziggy opened my eyes and my ears to a world that felt more comfortable, more familiar, and more exciting, than the one I was growing up in. Through his music and his image I suddenly had a visual language and a role model for how I was learning I was.
I am not sure how it is for young people growing up gay these days, but in the 70s and 80s we were all but invisible, other than the occasional grotesque stereotype, in the media and popular culture. It was natural to conclude, even without the outright homophobia of those times, that to be gay was to be terrifyingly different. To be gay was to be condemned to the margins. To be gay meant no going back. When it comes to sexuality the 70s were firmly an era of insistent binaries – you were either/or. Something that even the gay community itself, I was to discover later, was prone to. But Bowie opened up a world to me where such binaries might not be so rigidly enforced, where as the Kinks had sung “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”.
Yes, in later years his music lost some of its appeal, my tastes moved on perhaps. But the man was always an icon, and will always have a special place in my life.
Bowie gave hope to many of us, the scared kids growing up gay in the 70s, hope that we could after all be different. But more than that, he showed us, modelled for us, that we could be differently different, variously different, that it was ok to not be sure about lots of things including gender and sexuality. We could be different for more than a day, and in more than one way.
Mr Bowie I hope the stars have a warm welcome for you tonight. Thank you.