Gillian Frank

We at Notches mourn the passing of the iconic singer and performer David Bowie. A dynamic artist, Bowie pushed the boundaries of genre, gender, and sexuality in his life and work. His sexual identity and its public performance were versatile, challenging and complex.

To reflect upon his life and influence, we offer some sources to begin thinking about David Bowie’s place in the history of sexuality of the 1970s and 1980s.

What sources would you use to place David Bowie within a longer and broader history of sexuality? What memories do you have of David Bowie, his music, and his career that locate him within the history of sexuality?


Gillian Frank is a Managing Editor of Notches: (re)marks on the History of Sexuality. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at Center for the Study of Religion and a lecturer in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. Frank’s research focuses on the intersections of sexuality, race, childhood and religion in the twentieth-century United States. He is currently revising a book manuscript titled Save Our Children: Sexual Politics and Cultural Conservatism in the United States, 1965-1990Gillian tweets from @1gillianfrank1.

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  1. I was 15 in ’75 and I suppose I that gave me the few year’s gap which created a feeling of complascence with Bowie’s work. Gender bending had become the norm and was being challenged by the rawness of Punk. I was actually more hurt by Tom Robinson’s outing as “straight” than with Bowie’s, because by then, I and my same sex partner had staked our place in the gay rights movement here in Australia. Tom’s image was earnest and honest whereas you would be a fool to actually place any trust in David’s consistency.

    I am pleased that Bowie’s art returned to a more dystopian viewpoint in his final album, beause that is what really matters to all of us more than sexuality does. We are watching the end of the Anthropocene. The situation I find myself in now, where I am watching the scientific consensus on climate change firm and get thrust into the public sphere, makes the cultural influences of my youth like sci-fi literature and performers like Lou Reed, Bowie and especially Peter Hammill/Van Der Graaf Generator seem real and reasonable. All we have left is to survive, fight or die.

    On the issue of intergenerational sex, consent and coercion I can empathise with the tale told by Lori Mattix. It is condescending to consider that she did not have free choice in what she did. Sure, the system used her, but it does so to us all and she was physically an adult. At the age of 15 I went out to deliberately “lose my virginity” with a stranger, as a way of gaining first hand knowledge, but also to dispel the “cultural fantasy” of sex as an aim in itself. I found it boring, but if I had found myself a David Bowie I might have been slightly less bored.

    There is no “natural” way of life in our depersonalised industrial society. We have been given choice in all but the underlying destruction of our civilisation which is about to come to an end through the collapse of both the Global Economy and the liveable environment. To succumb to proscriptive “norms” of gender, race or sexuality at this point would be as idiotic as hiding our heads in the sand when faced with evidence of climate armageddon. I have had a homosexual relationship for over 35 years which has been “open” – both of us being, in fact, bisexual. If you think of the relationship between Vita Sackville West and Nigel Nicholson as a standard of an open relationship, the same freedom can be achieved from a homosexual base.

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