FREDDIE MERCURY: THE SUPERSONIC MAN THAT ONCE WAS
- Shravan and Ananya
Minority erasure is real.
Since the conception of mass media and Hollywood, we’ve witnessed the glossing over of different under-represented communities. And during the prestigious month of June, don’t let that one Starbucks rainbow drink distract you from the fact that the identities of celebrated queer figures have historically been suppressed, invalidated and erased. One such figure is Farrokh Bulsara, or as many of you may know him, Freddie Mercury. Behind the iconic rhymes and rhythms (we've all aggressively foot-stomped to We Will Rock You on a school bus, right?) was a queer man that never really got to truly express his identity. No matter how hard he’d try, he could never really break free. Free from the heteronormative, whitewashed shackles of the media, that is (and yes, we will be referencing Queen songs throughout the article).
Born in 1946 in Zanzibar to Parsi-Indian parents, Farrokh had been around the world quite a bit. In his early years, he studied at St. Peter’s School, a British style boarding school in the town of Panchgani. While living with relatives, he picked up the piano as a hobby. Freddie had always possessed a fondness for music, and at the young age of 12, he created a band with a few of his classmates. Throughout his childhood, he was known as the ‘quiet but eccentric’ child; he really was just a boy making a big noise. His friends and teachers always ‘suspected’ Mercury to be gay. He had a habit of referring to all his male classmates as ‘darling’, something that was quite unusual at the time. Although being gay was something that wasn’t really welcomed, Freddie seemed to be an exception to all of his peers and teachers because of his entertaining and likeable personality. Freddie was academically proficient too. Essentially, he was an all-rounder.
Fast-forward to the early 1980s: Freddie’s musical passions were taking him places. He was making headlines with his chart-topping band, Queen. Known globally for his flamboyant costumes and extravagant performances (after all, they did call him Mr. Fahrenheit), he was often questioned by interviewers about his sexuality. In one such interview, he excitedly remarked, “I’m gay as a daffodil, my dear!” Though some people argue that this quote was a joke taken out of context, it left the public considering the possibility that he was, in fact, queer. This consideration was further bolstered by reports of affairs he had had with other men, his hairdresser being one of them. However, some people chose to believe that he was heterosexual, partially as a result of their own outdated beliefs, but also possibly because his most (and really only) popular relationship was with a woman.
Rumours about Freddie’s sexual orientation fell in and out of popularity (they were easy come, easy go, if you will). There were several people that were convinced he was gay, and some that thought it was utterly untrue, but in the end, neither “side” got a confirmation of any sort. According to Queen member Brian May, even band members remained clueless as to his sexual orientation. While theories about his sexuality were more passive for a while, no one could’ve been prepared for the media frenzy that followed in April 1987, when he was reported to have been diagnosed with HIV. (For context, HIV was a disease that was largely stigmatised and had a negative connotation attached to the LGBT community.) Unfortunately, he succumbed to the horrifying sickness in 1991 after quite a long battle. Sadly, his passing just added more fuel to the fire, and it brought on his grieving relatives and friends an onslaught of unnecessary paparazzi attention.
Freddie Mercury, to this day, remains an icon of the LGBTQ+ community, in spite of the fact that he never officially came out. Speculations about his sexuality continue to this day; as much as we can pick apart different interviews and song lyrics that supposedly allude to any part of his identity, the truth remains that his sexuality was much more complicated than just a label. People weren’t ready to accept that fact back then, and some still aren’t today. This mindset has not only led to the straightwashing of Mercury, but also that of countless other popular figures throughout history. It has also given birth to the dangerous misconception that one must adopt a definite, firm label to define their sexual orientation in order to be a valid member of society. Feelings are complex for everyone, as they were for Mercury, and there’s no excuse for people to be straightwashing him. As much as this sounds cliched, it’s 2021, people. We need to open our minds up to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, his “Somebody to Love” wasn’t a woman after all.
A RANT ABOUT RAINBOW CAPITALISM
“Queer liberation, not rainbow capitalism!”
- lots of queer people, literally all the time
Every year, on the 1st of June, corporations all over the world can be seen adopting rainbow-themed logos, emphasizing LGBTQIA+ equality in their taglines, and marketing their products to queer audiences in distinctive and unique ways. In an almost ritualistic fashion, companies roll out said changes, deliberately timed to celebrate pride month. They serve two main purposes: to provide non-cishet consumers with the spending power they have historically lacked, and to display support and allyship on the part of firms. So obviously, it’s a good thing that companies adopt these new practices, right?
Well, no. Absolutely not.
Let me try to explain why that is with the help of an example. In December 2019, Google fired a gay trans woman named Kathryn Spiers for trying to inform her coworkers that Google had hired a firm that opposes labour unionization (which was, by the way, a part of her job). She was one amongst four queer people who was suddenly let go without notice for this incident. This wasn’t the first time non-cishet employees were fired for doing their job, and it certainly wasn’t the last either. Fast forward to June 2021, and Google has an easter egg on their website that supposedly celebrates sexual and gender minorities - the same minorities they fired a while ago for no reason. Do you see where the problem lies now?
This process of suddenly changing the look and appeal of a firm to incorporate sexual diversity is known as “rainbow capitalism”, and it’s the peak of deceptiveness and performativity. It boils an identity with a complex, difficult, and at times traumatic history down to a business tactic. It turns an oppressed group of people into a market to capitalize upon. At best, it’s a well-meaning, albeit fake show of support for the LGBTQIA+ community. But at worst? It's a pointless smokescreen, behind which companies continue to be their cruel, atrocious selves. It’s a very intentional tactic used to conceal their wrongdoings against queer people. It’s about as dishonest and hypocritical as a company can get. Rainbow capitalism is an illusion meant to make you think “Well, this company’s selling pride merch, so it must support gay people, right?”
The modern form of rainbow capitalism is a very direct result of capitalism itself. The more free the market gets, the more profit-motivated firms are, and the more competitive they wish to be. That competition encourages firms to attain as wide a customer base as possible, so they inevitably strive for ‘diversity’ in their products to set them apart from the rest of the industry. And that’s the problem. Regardless of how inclusive a big company may seem during pride month, it’s almost always an unavoidable truth that this tactic is just that - a tactic motivated by money. Under a system wherein the economy isn’t entirely motivated by profit, but rather by social welfare, rainbow capitalism wouldn’t be nearly as prevalent (Am I describing socialism? Oh well).
You might be wondering - “What can businesses do? Not sell pride-themed products? Not be inclusive?” All firms need to do is show support for the community throughout the year. They should hire more queer people and make sure to have sexual and gender diversity in their employee base. They should protect their queer employees from harassment and aggression. They should expand healthcare plans to cover transgender workers’ medical needs. They should, most importantly, just treat queer people like they would treat anyone else. And what can you do about it? Support smaller business owned by queer people. Buy from companies that are allies throughout the year, and not just when it’s financially beneficial. Don’t give in to rainbow capitalism, and don’t fall for it.
So, if you’re a queer person reading this article, I want you to know that your identity is incredibly valid, and that it’s so much more than a lucrative strategy. It’s you. Don’t let companies trivialize your feelings and make you feel like you’re any less of a person, because you aren’t. And to all the big corporations out there, you can shove your rainbow capitalism up your own profit-motivated ass and start giving your queer employees, and queer people in general, the respect they deserve.
Happy pride month. <3
ALAN TURING: STRUGGLES AS A HOMOSEXUAL
Trigger warning - This article contains mentions of castration, suicide, and homophobia.
You’ve probably heard of Alan Turing. Brilliant scientist? Pioneer in the field of computing? The one who cracked the Enigma, playing a vital role in beating the Nazis? Yep, that's the one. He was a genius who sadly took his own life in 1954 by ingesting cyanide. Why did he do it? Well, that's because he couldn't deal with the 20th century British society that was torturing him just because his sexual orientation didn't align with the “norms” of the time.
Homosexuality was made prosecutable under The Labouchere Amendment of 1885, which mandated that "gross indecency" was a criminal offence; under this amendment, several homosexuals were unethically indicted in the UK. People didn't legally have the right to express their sexual orientation. What’s worse is considering homosexual relationships as “gross indecency”, when they are neither gross nor indecent in any way.
Why? What is wrong with that? Homosexuals and all members of the LGBTQ+ community are as human and normal as anyone else and there is no reason anyone can say otherwise. Oh, and what was the alternative to going to jail? That’s right - chemical castration treatment, of course (chemical castration treatment is a cruel form of punishment that renders the body useless when it comes to sexual activity). Alan Turing chose this alternative route over going to jail in 1952.
He picked this option during his trial, after entering a plea of guilt so that he could continue working to some extent. Alan Turing was not trusted by the government with covert operations anymore just because he was homosexual. How cruel and unjust is that? Nothing about the man changed - he was still the same person, but just because he wasn’t attracted to the opposite sex, he found himself being excluded from society and being treated extremely inhumanely. This injustice completely destroyed his physical and mental health, causing him to commit suicide just two years later.
Turing was outed when he and Arnold Murray were lovers. A burglary had taken place a few weeks after Turing met Murray, and Murray confessed that he knew the burglar when Turing confronted him. An emotional Murray then threatened to tell the police about their relationship if Turing reported the incident — no idle threat, since,homosexuality was a criminal offense. After refusing to be silenced, Turing was later pressured to tell the truth during the investigation, leading to his trial and eventual punishment.
He was forced to take drugs that reduced his libido and inhibited hormonal production, preventing him from taking part in any sexual activities. The hormonal treatments took a heavy toll, and his conviction severely limited his ability to travel, even for professional reasons. He had himself predicted, “No doubt, I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I've not found out". Although he continued his research in the fields he was working on at the time, he lost his security clearance and was unable to continue his cryptography research. Even though his mother stood by his side, his own brother John called his sexual proclivities "disgusting and disreputable".
Alan couldn’t handle the cruel castration treatment anymore and in 1954, he was found dead on his bed with a half-eaten, cyanide-filled apple next to him when the housekeeper came to clean the house. He was quite literally tortured during the fateful last 2 years of his life. He was treated like a dog by the government and most of the public. He was found guilty of a preposterous and unfair offence, and he absolutely didn't deserve anything that happened to him.
Alan Turing played an important role in giving homosexuals the (limited) rights they have today, but we have got to ask ourselves one question - Do people have to suffer for years and then end up taking their own life when they can’t handle it for us to pay attention and acknowledge the systemic problems around us? The answer is a concrete no.
After his death, homosexual relationships were legalised via the Sexual Offensive Act of 1967 on the condition that they were consensual, private, and between two men who were at least 21, but the specific laws used to convict Turing were not revoked until 1994, 40 years after his demise. Additionally, he wasn’t apologized to by the British government until 2009, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered a speech concerning the mathematician's treatment in response to a petition signed by thousands, which was titled: "We are sorry. You deserved so much better." In all honesty, the apology was quite vague and Turing deserved much more than that.
But still, to this day, he hasn’t gotten justice as he was officially “pardoned” in 2013. Pardoned for what? He wasn't even guilty in the first place; this pardon was even worse than the apology. What's worse is, under the Turing Act passed in 2017, several other homosexuals, such as Oscar Wilde, who were prosecuted for being homosexuals, were pardoned. They should have never been prosecuted in the first place, since they were guilty of nothing at all. It should never have been a criminal offence to be homosexual. Tens of thousands of men were similarly prosecuted between 1885 and 1967, and their convictions still stand.
I would like to end this with a message. Let people live their life, let them express themselves how they want, what's the problem for you? Let us finally be the accepting society we need to be. Let us ensure a case like Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde, or any of the thousands of people prosecuted around the world for being queer never happen again. Support everyone around you; be validating and respectful to everyone regardless of their gender, sex, race, or really anything they can’t control. We must celebrate love and not just tolerate it.
CREATING A HOME WITHOUT WALLS
Creative expression has always been a source of comfort for me. Similarly, artists turn to their art to find a home without walls.
I've always considered the arts as a growing, changing home. But at home, you would need to feel comfortable, and like yourself. Last year, I came across someone I identified with on an ethereal level (that's my fancy word for "I saw a reflection I hadn't seen before"). Priyanka Paul, or @artwhoring as more people know her, has an art form that she considers a home that offers a different sort of comfort. The freedom of expression.
A home requires a free breathing space, where you'd feel safe letting all your emotions out. Anger is one such emotion, and people often feel like this emotion is entirely their own.
Priyanka writes in one of her Vogue features about how anger is a powerful catalyst to social change. Priyanka talks about the internet and how anger is often seen as something negative but needs to be used for powerful changes rather than hate. She mentions anger as being "packaged differently" when it comes to the people in power, e.g. men over women, cis people over trans people, etc. She mentions how minorities have had to fit into stereotypes of softness, pushing human emotions down, while gender roles and minority relations deny them the ability to express anger, a universal human trait.
Gender roles and gender itself have been constrictive boxes for so many people, defining for them the way they live. Priyanka talks about gender fluidity and how it allows her to move freely around a spectrum, rather than fit uncomfortably in a box. She talks more about this in her handbook. To her, gender is the truest form of self-expression. "For me gender has always been a restrictive entity, it has restricted fluidity whether it be the way I dress to the things I talk about to even how I talk about them....And though you [are taught] again and again that gender is a cardboard box to be put into; my own gender identity is too fluid to remain in this box." This is you at home.
She brings minority emotions and gender limitations together while speaking about identities and how non cis-het people aren't respected and treated humanely by most of society. The only place in which they are allowed to express human emotions turns out to be a family they find, or in a niche they create for themselves - a home they build on a rock.
Priyanka's niche is the thing I admire most about her. Scrolling through her Instagram page has led me to rethink and reiterate so much of what I see, and it is unconventionally beautiful. She speaks widely on casteism, coming from the Thiyya-Ezhava community in Kerala which is considered "backward" to this day. Her art reclaims discourse about caste from Savarna individuals and puts a realistically depicted spin on it, talking about how superiority and inferiority is drilled into children by propaganda through animated retellings of myths. She has also written pieces about performative activism, which you can find on her instagram page and blog.
That, however, is only one part of a beautifully intersecting identity and how she portrays it. Some of my favorites are a lesbian lil' christmas valentine's day from the margins anger (vogue feature)
One of the many things I learnt from this journey is that family isn’t just the people in your house and your blood relations. Family is also everyone you hold close to your heart and who you resonate with. Family can be found.