Despite the surge in interest in the last decade, LGBT/queer history is still understudied – and what is studied is often consigned to theses, academic journals or half-deserted blogs, shouting out into a void. It’s hard to change the conception of queerness as a rare and recent thing. That’s why I was thrilled to run across the book David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music by Darryl W. Bullock. It’s a nonfiction record of queer performers, singers and musicians from the early 1900s to the present day, and to my knowledge it is the first of its kind – certainly the most commercially available.
First, the good. Even aside from it existing at all, David Bowie Made Me Gay is amazingly comprehensive. Some of the performers chronicled in the first chapter no longer have existing music recordings, and others throughout the book were one hit wonders, still with an impact but devilishly hard to research. (Jobriath is an excellent example – I don’t know anybody who had heard of him prior to this book, and yet he’s included.) Bullock even makes the executive decision to largely gloss over LGBT giants David Bowie, Elton John and Freddie Mercury – they have autobiographies and studies of their own, after all, whereas acts like Coil, Jobriath and Klaus Nomi likely never will.
In addition to acts I’d never heard of, however, Bullock shakes the retrospective assumptions off of several bands that I had previously heard of, listened to, or otherwise enjoyed without an inkling that they were queer. The B-52s, Soft Cell, and R.E.M are 80s examples of this – but it’s all throughout the book. Many of them were immensely obvious to those at the time (ex. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ) whereas new and younger listeners didn’t have the historical context to pick up on what could only be implied.
At times, Bullock gets too caught up in facts and figures, and the precise accounting of record sales, rights, and label administration. This information is definitely interesting in small doses, but it’s more geared towards full-on music history nerds. (…Like me, honestly. But not the point.) The real sadness for me is how he tries but ultimately fails in being inclusive. Most of the artists listed are gay or lesbian, with a little too much time dedicated to talking about how gay/lesbian performers were pressured into identifying as bisexual to be “less queer”. Bisexual performers definitely have their moments, but biphobia as a concept doesn’t really come up, when it really really should. Trans inclusiveness is very similar, with Bullock changing somebody’s pronouns mid-paragraph or mid-sentence instead of maintaining them throughout. I can see the historical importance of printing deadnames of pop-culture figures, especially when they were prominent celebrities both before and after, but there’s no reason to misgender artists who have been out as trans for decades. Ace and aro stuff, par for the course, doesn’t come up at all. Likely performers who identified as what we would now call asexual or aromantic called themselves something else, which makes research in that area hard – however, some acknowledgement of the identities would have gone a long way. I appreciate Bullock’s attempts at inclusivity, and in many places he does an excellent job, but a trans and/or bisexual sensitivity reader would have accomplished a lot.
Overall, I highly recommend this book for people interested in LGBT/queer music, and it’s a great gateway into a world that many of us never get to hear about. I hope that it inspires more research into the people featured in it, and hopefully some more trans-positive work as well. And as far as macro-level works on LGBT history go – this is a pretty good one.