I celebrate the life of David Bowie, genderbending British singer-songwriter, rock icon and actor who died Jan. 10 at age 69. He was my most important early queer spiritual artistic inspiration -- a prototype for my later visions of the queer Christ.
And he moved the whole society toward acceptance of LGBT people. Bowie proved that a man can be intensely feminine and changed public perceptions about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Several readers pointed out a resemblance between Bowie and the contemporary gay Jesus painted by Doug Blanchard in our book “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision.” The 24 paintings show Jesus as a young urban hipster in modern dress as he faces his arrest, trial, death and resurrection. Maybe I didn’t notice the similarity myself because the Jesus of my private meditation often looks like Bowie. But the likeness shows in the photo (above) that I took of my vintage Bowie cassette tapes with a page from the Passion book.
It’s true that for me as a teenager growing up in Iowa, Bowie embodied the archetype of the misunderstood queer messiah… although the salvation he promised was based on rock music (Ziggy Stardust) or alien technology (in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”) The inspiration that I found in Bowie became the foundation for my later understanding of the queer Christ.
Actually in “The Last Temptation of Christ,”” Bowie played not Jesus, but governor Pontius Pilate, who interrogates the would-be messiah in this video clip.
My vocation now is to write about LGBTQ spirituality and the arts, and Bowie had all three aspects when I was a teen searching for role models: a cool queer persona, an artistic sensibility and strong visual style, and what I perceived as a subtle spiritual quality. All of this was while I was still an unbaptized secular person, albeit with spiritual inclinations.
When asked to choose the “walkout song” for my Queer Clergy Trading Card last year, I picked a Bowie tune. His “Oh! You Pretty Things” expresses how I felt when I walked out to preach at the predominantly LGBT Metropolitan Community Churches, especially during the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. I saw the people in the congregation as beautiful, even though they were condemned as sinners by many churches and “driving their mamas and papas insane” with their gender nonconformity.
Saint David Bowie candle from GrannysHopeChest
Bowie came out as gay in an interview in 1972, when it was far from cool. That was only three years after Stonewall. Elton John and Freddie Mercury were still in the closet. Rumors reached all the way to Iowa hinting that he had a sexual relationship with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Bowie seemed to be one of us. He projected otherness.
In a 1976 Playboy interview Bowie described himself as bisexual. His sexual experimentation and desire to break moral taboos were real, although in 1983 he claimed, “I was always a closet heterosexual” and regretted his declaration of bisexuality as “the biggest mistake I ever made.”
His coming out was important even if it turned out to be an artistic statement or publicity stunt, because all the world-famous musicians who were really gay were still afraid to admit their homosexuality in public. Bowie took a risk and helped clear the way.
He may not have actually been gay, but he did experience some homophobia. Bowie reported that he lost opportunities to perform because of his self-proclaimed bisexuality. “America is a very puritanical place, and I think it stood in the way of so much I wanted to do,” he said in a 2002 interview.
His refusal to be labeled or stick to any one label seems strikingly contemporary.
How gay did Bowie really seem back in 1972? Check out the 1972 video of Bowie draping his arm suggestively around guitarist Mick Ronson while singing “Starman” (from his “Hunky Dory” album) on the British primetime show “Top of the Pops.” Homosexuality was still considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. (They de-listed it in 1973.)
Bowie told a reporter that he was bothered by being “not quite an atheist,” and yet religious leaders offered tributes to him when he died. Even the Vatican had some praise for him, tweeting his lyrics and declaring him “never banal.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told the BBC, “I’m very, very saddened to hear of his death. I remember sitting and listening to his songs endlessly in the ‘70s particularly, and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had.”
Before becoming a rock star, Bowie explored various religions, including Christianity. He studied Tibetan Buddhism for four years starting when he was 13. He considered becoming a monk, but his guru urged him to follow music because he could benefit others more that way.
He confessed to having “a passion for the visual in religious rituals,” which he expressed in the dramatic flair of his costumes, cover art, and the sets and staging of his concerts and music videos.
In a 2005 interview he revealed that his spiritual quest continued through his music: “Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always.”"
Bowie knelt and led thousands in the Lord’s Prayer at the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert captured on video.
Dear God - PLEASE BLESS David Bowie FOR THIS... by kneepadsphysical
My life partner Audrey said that one reason she fell in love with me was that I had David Bowie and Chopin tapes next to each other in my cassette drawer at college. Bowie had a HUGE impact on me as a teenager, bringing what we would now call a queer sensibility to a budding lesbian growing up in Iowa and getting me through high school.
I can’t choose my favorite Bowie song because I love so many so much. I can’t even choose my favorite Bowie ALBUM! Here are my top three, in chronological order.
“Hunky Dory” (1971) includes songs about the underground world of drag queens (“Queen Bitch”) and my favorite artist Andy Warhol. When I fell in love with Audrey, so many songs on this album expressed our moods: “Kooks” proclaimed happily, “If you stay with us you’re gonna be pretty kooky too.” “Fill Your Heart” rejoiced that “Love cleans the mind and makes it Free.”
“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” (1972) is about a bisexual rock star / prophet who prepares the way for extra-terrestrials who will come to save the Earth. Bowie’s own explanation of the Ziggy Stardust album: “I wanted to define the archetype of the messiah rock star.”
Listening to “Ziggy Stardust” again, I am struck by how many religious references he did make -- to priests, God and church. My walkout song “Oh! You Pretty Things” is on this album.
The song “Five Years” is like a Buddhist lovingkindness litany for “all things without exception” as he sings about trying to take in everything before the Earth dies in five years:
I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.'s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I'd need so many people
“Aladdin Sane” (1973) had an amazing androgynous cover image of Bowie with red hair. My favorite song on this album has always been “Time.”
I drifted away from Bowie later as he went through many “Ch-ch-changes” (another great Bowie hit song) and distanced himself from his genderfluid personae.
New and final album: Blackstar
I like that Bowie did a final album (Blackstar) designed to be released when he died, dealing with his own deathbed and the transition to heaven. It shows he was a real artist who used every life experience as fuel for his artistic expression. His collaborator called it a “parting gift.”
Bowie showed me how to grow up queer. Now he’s showing me how to face death and go to heaven.
Particularly striking is the song “Lazarus,” an obvious reference to the Biblical Lazarus whom Jesus loved and raised from the dead. Bowie, face bandaged, opens by singing from his hospital bed in the Lazarus video:
Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now.
“Blackstar” was released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, just two days before he died. May this music icon be welcomed to heaven by the other LGBTQ saints whose lives are honored here at the Jesus in Love Blog. As he sang in “Space Oddity” (his first US hit song): “May God’s love be with you.”
David Bowie: Queer Messiah (Wild Reed)
LGBT People Reveal Why David Bowie Was So Important To Them (Buzzfeed.com)
How David Bowie Sexually Liberated Us All (Daily Beast)
In Memory of My Great Gay Saint, David Bowie (pitchfork.com)
That time David Bowie almost became a Buddhist monk — and what he said (and sang) about that time (lionsroar.com)
This post is part of the LGBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.