Today is Freddie Mercury’s 76th birthday.
I was thinking about what it was like for him and all gay men in the early 70s throughout Freddie’s life until he died in 1991. I was in the gay world starting in 1978 through about 1983 directly and then on the periphery for another ten years after that. I stayed in touch with about ten gay friends for many years after that and knew how their lives unfolded in an extremely homophobic time where AIDS was killing every third friend.
Stalking Freddie and Hating Who They Thought He Was
The press hounded Freddie during his life, wanting him to “confess” his sexuality. (I was going to add a picture of him being hounded by paparazzi, but it made my skin crawl just looking at the people stealing pictures of him, so I will not add to that.) Yet, he never came out himself, not even when he said he had AIDS the night before he died. Besides it being none of anyone’s business, the world was not kind to gay people then.
Why would he come out when the world was so hateful? It took an act of extreme bravery for any of us to come out to our parents, our employers, our friends… but for Freddie, it might have been the end of his career. As any gay person who had a high profile career (or a family, for that matter) at that time will tell you, almost across the board, they could not have come out in those years.
Then There was AIDS
“On March 22, 1980, a year before that first MMWR report, evangelical Christian leaders delivered a petition to President Jimmy Carter demanding a halt to the advance of gay rights. ‘God’s judgment is going to fall on America as on other societies that allowed homosexuality to become a protected way of life,’ Bob Jones III predicted, according to UPI.”
In 1982, when we started hearing about AIDS, it was almost exclusively gay men who had it. People despised gays to start with, but add their terror of AIDS and thinking it could be caught by touch or breathing or tears. I remember discussions about rounding up gay men and putting them in detention centers or prison to keep them apart from “normal” people.
It was a daily occurrence to hear, “It is God’s Will they are being killed by AIDS.” “It is what they deserve for being so evil.” “God will rid the world of these evil homosexuals. Finally, they will be gone.”
Violence against gays and lesbians escalated fast in the mid-1980s. Homosexual attacks were not documented as such back then, so there is no official record except the records the gay men and lesbians kept themselves.
“As Matthew Holloway, a homosexual who works for a major financial institution in San Francisco, waited for his roommate outside a supermarket last December, a teen-age man and woman began to shout at him.
”’We should kill you first, because you’re gonna give us AIDS,” Mr. Holloway said they shouted. He said that a few minutes later, as he and his roommate drove from the parking lot, they were attacked by the couple and a dozen other young people. His roommate, David Johnson, was dragged from the car and beaten with chains and skateboards. He suffered three broken ribs, a broken jaw and bruises. Mr. Holloway fought to stay in the car and was unharmed. The attackers fled before the police arrived; no suspects were arrested.”
So coming out was not only terrifying back then, but you could be beaten, maimed, or killed for being gay. The stigma of AIDS was wide-sweeping.
That fact was not unknown by Freddie Mercury.
1984: I Want to Break Free & Hot for Teacher
These videos are two examples I want to share about how prevalent homophobia was in 1984.
There is a plethora of information about Queen’s 1984 video “I Want to Break Free” and how MTV refused to play it. No one seems to know if it was officially banned, but I want to share my own experience with that video.
I remember being aghast at Queen in drag when I saw the video before MTV stopped playing it. And I had been in the gay community for several years by then, surrounded by drag queens and transwomen! If I was shocked, you can imagine how horrified middle America was.
I wish I could remember my exact thought process. Did I worry for Queen? Did I think it was Freddie’s coming out song? After all these years seeing the whole video, it is still the opening when they are in drag that I remember from when I was 23-years old. It was that jarring.
Another video that came out in 1984 was Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” It was scandalous, but played every hour on MTV.
Irony of Time
In my YouTube foray, I watch Reaction videos… to music and movies, mostly, but also some documentaries. When I’ve watched Reactions to “I Want to Break Free,” adults and kids love it. They think it is great fun. Even Americans.
But when “Hot for Teacher” is shown, anyone younger than 40 cannot believe that was ever on TV. “That had to have been banned,” is a common refrain. Shocked comments about the mother’s moaning, the stripping teacher, and the 4th graders being allowed in the video (“Where were their parents?! Did they have to sign a waiver? I would never let my kid be in a video like this!”) When the older-than-40-year old person says how great it was, how many boys were glued to their MTVs to wait for it, and how no one batted an eye, the youngers cannot believe what they are hearing.
What a difference 40 years makes.
It was probably very difficult for Freddie Mercury to find peace and quiet in his life unless he was walled in. The press hungered for his soul the same way they did for Princess Diana’s. Paparazzi were leeches and vultures picking apart the flesh and blood of humans, all for a story.
If he were a young man today, he might have come out and had a great time at it. But back then, coming out was everything but an option. If he were a young man today with AIDS, he would have medications to keep him alive. If he were young today and was HIV negative and sexually active, he would have PrEP to keep him from getting AIDS.
But he is not a young man today. He is one of millions that left too soon and in too much pain, physical and emotional. When we remember Freddie’s birthday today, please take a moment and remember all the other people whose birthdays have also passed, most without notice.
You’ve broken free, now Rock in Power and Happy Birthday, Freddie Mercury.