On Monday, Nov. 25, 1991, my mother woke me up with a knock on the door.
“What’s the name of that singer you love so much?” she asked, cigarette and coffee in hand. “Because he’s on the news.”
I was a 23-year-old slacker with an English degree who graduated the previous May. I had no job, no future prospects. The week before I’d moved out of the apartment I shared with a crazy ex-girlfriend and was staying at my mother and stepfather’s house until I could find my own place.
Surrounded by my possessions in trash bags and milk crates, I arose from an air mattress with the sound of Kurt Loder from MTV News announcing that Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, died the night before from AIDS-related bronchio-pneumonia.
“That’s such a shame,” my mother said. “And he was so handsome.”
She knew this was a big deal for me. Her garage was stacked with boxes of every record Queen ever made, every 45, tubes full of posters. Second only to the Beatles in Great Britain, Queen ruled the charts with the stadium anthems “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions.” There’s also the operatic opus cum karaoke staple “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
By that November, now twenty years ago, their stardom had faded, especially in the U.S. It was then I realized that my fandom-turned-obsession was also a kind of love affair, which was now coming to an end.
Since I was nine years old, Freddie Mercury—flamboyant frontman, rock icon—was at the center of my rather dull suburban life. Like millions of others, while he was alive, he earned my devotion and hero-worship. It was only when he died, and in the years that followed, that he became an actual human being. I finally saw him for who he was: a gay man.
Everybody loves Queen nowadays. This past September, Google celebrated what would have been Freddie Mercury’s 65th birthday with an animated doodle on its homepage. Singing competitions feature Queen every season, with Freddie’s operatic voice as a benchmark for melismatic contestants. There’s a long-running Queen musical in London’s West End and around the world, a competition to be in an official tribute band, and a biopic with Sacha Baron Coen in the works. In 1991, however, Queen couldn’t get arrested in the U.S., and being a fan of Freddie Mercury was tantamount to saying you were either gay, unhip, or both.
Growing up, I didn’t want my rock stars to be like me. Life in South Jersey was boring, unsophisticated. The son of a truck driver and part-time secretary, I lived in a rancher and went to Catholic school. Nothing around me could be rockstar-like. Everyman rockers Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar made me cringe back then.
“People want art,” Freddie said in 1977. “They want showbiz. They want to see you rush off in your limousine.” He toasted his audiences with champagne in ballet tights. I wanted some of his showbiz presence to rub off on me, but what was that presence?
Rock ’n’ roll equals sex. To listen to Jim Morrison or Elvis Presley for years as obsessive teenagers must leave a different effect than listening to, say, singing along to the lead singer of a rock band called Queen who dressed like Leatherman from the Village People.
Once in high school I got into a fight with a boy named Frank when he said I was gay because I liked Queen. To admit that my rock idol was gay would be tantamount to saying that I, too, was gay, and that was social suicide as a teen in South Jersey. So we duked it out. Most of the time I would say Freddie Mercury was “bisexual,” as if he had somehow reformed himself. I wasn’t especially naïve, and Freddie didn’t hide his sexuality, but he also didn’t proclaim it. He said it would be “boring” if he did.
If we were good Freudians, we would concede we’re all a bit bisexual. At some point, gazing at Freddie channel Elvis Presley in “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and Donna Summer in “Another One Bites The Dust,” I questioned whether all this added up to me being gay myself. Was I in love with Freddie Mercury?
When Queen’s video to “I Want to Break Free,” an homage to Coronation Street in which the band members dressed in drag, came out, it was banned by MTV and seen as some transsexual recruitment video. I was doubly horrified. I am ashamed to admit to this gay panic now, but I was afraid Freddie’s gayness was rubbing off on me.
It’s not that I didn’t suspect or understand on some level that Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of a rock band called Queen who sported the Chelsea macho clone look, was gay. Should sexual preference matter when someone loves that artist’s work? Certainly not. What about if you’re obsessed with the person who made it, want to know everything about them? This complicates things.
It came to a head after the summer before I started college. I knew I liked girls, but the two times I had sex were clumsy affairs. One night, drinking at a bar in Philadelphia that would serve my friends, a nice man in motorcycle chaps and studded vest struck up a conversation.
He placed his hands was on my shoulder, rubbing it, then started to move down. We got to the point where I had to give my first “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression but I’m straight” speech.
“But I heard you talking about Queen,” he said. “How can you love Freddie Mercury and not be gay?”
Back then, there were many feminine rock frontmen to choose from—David Bowie, David Lee Roth, Robert Plant—but there was something different about Freddie Mercury. Biographers point out his “exotic” background. Born Faroukh Bulsara in Zanzibar to a Parsi family, he went to boarding school in India and moved with his family to London in 1964, when he was 17.
“I’m not going to be a rock star,” he told a fellow art student at college. “I’m going to be a legend.”
Back then, I chose Freddie because of his voice and the songs he sung—sweet and soulful one track, operatic and angry the next. I swooned to his records with headphones on in my room. I was a dramatic kid, and Queen provided the perfect soundtrack to endure the chronic humiliation of adolescence.
Freddie wasn’t just my rock idol, I now realize; he was my diva. In The Queen’s Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum writes that when a gay man chooses his opera diva, it’s for life, and this pairing is unavoidably erotic, a devotion or obsession beyond even the bonds of marriage. “Only one diva can have the power to describe a listener’s life, as a compass describes a circle,” he writes.
For Koestenbaum that compass was Anna Moffo; for me, it was Freddie Mercury.
By 1991, I’d met real, live gay people and I was comfortable in my role as humdrum heterosexual. I knew about AIDS and HIV. Condoms were everywhere. Safe sex PSAs ran in the student center non-stop. I also knew AIDs didn’t just affect gay men—Magic Johnson had just announced he was HIV-positive earlier that month.
Freddie’s gaunt appearance in the final videos reminded me of the men I knew in Philadelphia and New York City, many of them writers and artists, who wore baggy clothing and a beard as they faced the end of their life. Queen stopped touring in 1986 and their singer became a recluse. Fans kept guessing, and he and the band kept his illness secret, recording songs until the end.
In the summer of 1991, I went to my first Queen fan convention in a hotel in Pennsylvania. In a conference room, we screened some recent videos, and Freddie looked particularly unwell.
“He’s just skinny is all,” one Midwestern woman said to me. “He just needs a couple square meals.”
The day before he died, he issued a statement announcing his HIV status, where he lay in bed surrounded his assistant, rock legend Dave Clark, as well as his boyfriend of six years and his cats. Freddie didn’t go out with a long guitar chord or pyrotechnics. He didn’t die a tragic figure, nor did he die a heroic one. He went out the same way all of us will: as a human being.
The biographies and tell-all memoirs that followed painted a slightly different picture of Freddie. He was outrageous onstage and a party animal offstage. He also kept a koi pond, loved Japanese art, went to nightclubs, enjoyed elaborate dinners, took care of his parents and made up female nicknames for all his friends.
He was, in other words, a middle-aged gay man. Which made me love Queen’s music and fall in love with Freddie all over again.
Perhaps it’s the case that my love has become more unabashed now that he’s gone, not only because I’m comfortable with my own sexuality and his, but because it has become cool again to love Queen and Freddie.
Critics who called Queen everything from self-involved prats to fascists have largely died off, replaced by a new generation who see Freddie and Queen as the missing link between David Bowie and ABBA, a Beach Boys in Led Zeppelin clothing led by a Liza Minelli fanatic who toured like the Who.
In this age of meat dresses and same-sex marriage, it doesn’t matter that Queen’s singer was a flamboyant gay man. Lady Gaga’s namesake comes from Queen’s 1984 hit “Radio Ga Ga,” an homage to both singers’ showmanship.
When students at the college where I teach find out I am a Queen fan who wrote two strange books about the band, their eyes light up.
“Queen is my favorite band, too,” one always tells me.
The 20th anniversary of the death of Freddie Mercury won’t be marked by gatherings in Central Park. I know that. This week I’m keeping it simple. I’ll pour a glass of champagne and sing along to “Love of My Life,” one of Freddie’s trademark ballads, sung by thousands.
No one will ask, “Where were you when Freddie Mercury died?” A better question might be: what died along with Freddie Mercury, and what still lives on, 20 years later?