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Open and yet somehow opaque

In the late seventies, when David Bowie was a huge pop star, did I know he was bisexual?

So, here’s the thing: if you asked a DJ on a pop radio station in Phoenix, Arizona in 1975 or 1978 whether he would play queer music—as we might have thought of it at the time—he would have said no. He would have found the idea hilarious, actually, and might well have done an extended bit on air making fun of the queers. And then played some David Bowie. And some Elton John, and then some Queen. And maybe Dusty Springfield.

I can’t imagine what it’s like for a teenager today, looking at the photos of Mr. Bowie from that time, looking at Freddie Mercury’s and Elton John’s careers, looking at Liberace and Paul Lynde, and knowing that somehow the closet accommodated all of that. That we could, somehow, as a culture, manage to know and not know, to let them be openly gay, comically gay, outrageously and fabulously gay, but not associate that with actual homosexuality. Or, at least, not associate it with a man’s love for another man, the possibility of romance and something not unlike marriage. It was a willful blindness of a kind, and at this distance I don’t find it remotely plausible.

I watched a bit of Top Hat a couple of weeks ago, a terrific movie, by the way, and was particularly struck by the fact that nothing in it made any sense if you didn’t know that all the supporting characters were gay. Well, nothing in it makes any sense anyway, but the relationships between the characters all are predicated on their homosexuality. The Ginger Rogers character is being kept by a dressmaker; she isn’t his mistress, of course, as he is just using her to show off his wares. The producer and his valet are both classic nances (the valet is the wonderful Eric Blore, and the producer is Edward Everett Horton, for whom wonderful does not begin to cover it) and their relationship is, um. Bitchily personal. The producer is married (Helen Broderick plays his wife) and is one of those matronly lesbians, obviously more interested in Ginger Rogers than in Fred Astaire, or her husband for that matter. Did people watching the movie in 1935 not understand? I suspect they knew and didn’t know. Just like I knew and didn’t know about David Bowie in 1975.

Not that there’s any point to this, but that’s what I was thinking about, looking at the photos of David Bowie, back when he was the prettiest thing in pop.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,