Although remembrances for David Bowie have poured in from around the world — from Madonna to the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture — the transgender community in particular is mourning the loss of a star who was for many the first beloved and visible celebrity they saw flout gender norms, becoming a beacon of hope to many young trans people growing up in the United States.
After news broke Monday that Bowie died at 69 years old, Ellen Khan, the head of the children, youth and families program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, an LGBTQ organization, released a statement on Bowie's passing.
"David Bowie may not be well known to many young LGBTQ people today, but among my generation — those of us who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s — his gender-expansive style and sexual fluidity were groundbreaking,” she said. “David Bowie's mere presence was liberating for many young people seeking to express themselves in ways that pushed the boundaries of gender conformity and sexual orientation."
Mara Keisling, the executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, graduated from high school in 1977 and felt similarly about the possibilities that Bowie presented in a largely unaccepting culture.
“You have to remember that back in the ’70s, which is pre-Internet, there were no trans role models,” said Keisling, who said she felt society had no room to accept who she knew she really was. “I don’t think any of us could understand — who didn’t live through it — what it was like for a young trans person who desperately knew that their circumstances weren’t right. To just be some man wearing eye shadow or eyeliner … it was just amazing.”
Although she recognized much of Bowie’s persona as a performance, she felt she had been putting on her own performance to blend in. His ability to defy gender norms — and defy them confidently — was inspirational. “It was some of the only hope about my transness that I had at the time,” she said.
Bowie’s appeal to the trans community may have started in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but it endured long afterward. A new generation of trans youth became aware of the music legend through his role in the 1986 film “Labyrinth,” in which he played Jareth, the goblin king.
Raine Bee Allen is a 17-year-old who identifies as a transgender and a demiboy — a nonbinary gender, more on the male end of the gender spectrum but not 100 percent male.
“I had ‘Labyrinth’ on VHS as a kid, and it was one of my favorite movies growing up. I watched it more times than I can count, so I've known of Bowie pretty much my whole life,” said Allen, who grew up in North Dakota, Iowa and upstate New York. “His gender neutrality really helped me feel comfortable exploring my own gender and be comfortable as a feminine demiboy.”
Becks Hernandez-Berger, who is currently in the middle of a gender transition, grew up in Miami, which he says had a gay and lesbian community but less of a transgender one.
"I’m a man, but at the same time, I want sometimes to wear a dress to be sexy and not feel like that’s something that takes away from being a man,” Hernandez-Berger said. “To have someone like David Bowie who told you it was OK to be a man and be sexy and wear women’s things and that was OK … it meant a lot. It meant a whole lot.”