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David Bowie: Time to Mourn or Call Out?

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/01/2016 Aida Manduley

Every other week, I co-lead an all-gender process and support group. Last night, one of our topics of discussion was, of course, David Bowie. Some of the people in the room felt displaced, distraught by his death.
In this intergenerational space we held those who grew up knowing David Bowie was a big deal already as well as those who grew up along with David Bowie and saw his career take off. In this space, we shared stories of the personal meanings of his life as well as the confusing feelings left in his wake as some of us discovered information about his abuses and problematic behaviors.
Yesterday, all throughout social media, I saw countless stories shared of how David Bowie's music touched a million queer and trans people of varying races, ages, and countries. I have seen my newsfeed inundated with people's shock and memories, with the ways in which he inspired them in ways they did not even know until he passed, with the ways he changed music, science fiction, and gender.
And yesterday is also when I found out about the rape allegations against him (that were cleared by a jury, but I also know that doesn't mean it didn't happen) and the facts of his involvement with a 14/15-year-old. And so my feed has also been ripe with explosive anger as well as nuanced discomfort, frustration, and exhaustion.

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David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in a scene from the movie 'Labyrinth'. (Stanley Bielecki/Getty Images)


So what am I, a gender/queer Latinx, supposed to feel and do about this cultural icon? As someone who has worked for years on preventing and dealing with sexual assault and abuse? As someone who teaches on consent and believes in the incredible power and knowledge of youth as well as the incredible vulnerability of the teen years? As someone who sees White stars get a pass for things that celebrities of color get crucified for? As someone who works with many people feeling intense things about David Bowie's death? As someone who grew up watching Labyrinth way more than should've been allowed but still did not feel the connection to Bowie that so many others do?
We have to contend with the fact that the human Bowie...may have abused his power and privilege.

And how should others feel? The survivors of sexual abuse and assault hearing the streams of praise for someone accused of rape? The queer and trans kids of yesteryear for whom David Bowie's music became a lifeline, became a hope when they considered suicide? The people living at that intersection?
I don't ask this because I have the ultimate answers or get off on telling others what to do (I mean, maybe, but that's another story), but because we need to have the discussion and figure out where we stand and what that means.

Help: Feelings Are Hard And Complicated!

Our reluctance to have an honest and open conversation about the flaws of celebrities we love stems from a simple fact: we see ourselves in them. If your favorite smart, talented, successful celebrity can be classist, sexist or racist then what does that say about you? Well, it says that you can be classist, sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic.
But you can and you are at least some of these things sometimes. So am I. Own it. Learn from it. It's not an attack, it's the truth. Nobody is a perfect example of civil rights virtue. If you aren't screwing up, you aren't trying.
- Ijeoma Oluo
For those who are not mourning David Bowie: We can and must critique deplorable actions regardless of who is committing them. We must also acknowledge space for people's grief, and respect the very real pain felt by people when in mourning. This does not mean erase people's problematic, terrifying, horrible, disgusting, whatever actions. It means respect the fact that many people are feeling sadness. Bowie is dead; the people we should hold in kindness are those that feel the loss. It does not mean we have to mourn, erect banners, engage in commentary that doesn't feel authentic to us. It does not mean we shouldn't feel our feelings and get enraged at the ways the media perpetuate rape culture and gloss over issues we care about. It does mean we should allow for space to exist where people who are sad and hurt can congregate and feel their feelings. It means we should find those who are in a similar spot as us and vent our rage at this situation and David Bowie's actions but not at the expense of those who are mourning.
Our reluctance to have an honest and open conversation about the flaws of celebrities we love stems from a simple fact: we see ourselves in them.
Are we critiquing Bowie or his fans? Are we centering the cultural object or the person? Are we critiquing the abuses he committed or the fact that people can have big, complex feelings about it and are mourning his death? Are we critiquing how certain stars get so much praise upon their death and get their sins wiped away, but certain stars don't? Are we critiquing how, due to ignorance and White supremacy, many mourn the loss of a White star and ignore the losses of countless people of color at the hands of police brutality? Are we critiquing people's sadness to get cool points for not feeling anything? Are we assuming people can't feel multiple things at once?
We must think about our audience and the impact of our words on our communities. We must think about the intersections and how we highlight or erase them. We must ask ourselves why we are raising our voice and in service of what.

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(Source: Flickr)

For those who are mourning David Bowie: We have a right to time and space to grieve, to heal, to reminisce, to do whatever we have to do to feel whole. And we must not use our grief as a way to silence survivors of sexual abuse, even if we are survivors ourselves.
We must remember that we do not have to immediately engage in a discussion of the problematic aspects of David Bowie with strangers (or even friends) if it feels too raw. We eventually must, however, engage with these and incorporate them into our understanding of Bowie because he was an icon but also a person.
We should allow space for the pain of those who have experienced abuse and been repeatedly silenced, especially because so many have been abused by celebrities, by people in positions like his and with followings like his, and people have looked the other way "because they have done so much good for the community."
It means we should find those who are in a similar spot as us and air out our feelings in ways that feel helpful but not at the expense of acknowledging rape culture and abuse.
We must not use our grief as a way to silence survivors of sexual abuse, even if we are survivors ourselves.
Are we conflating our mourning of Bowie the person with Bowie-what-the-icon-and-the-music-meant-to-us (and thus really mourning a piece of ourselves and our world)? Are we mourning in a way that erases all wrongdoing and promotes Bowie as a perfect cyborg of queer and trans visibility? Are we ignoring the impact of race, age, and money in these discussions? Are we mourning in a public forum and keeping eerily silent about the ways in which David Bowie may have abused his power? Are we mourning for David Bowie and ridiculing or ignoring the mourning for countless lives lost in places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq?
We must think about our audience and the impact of our words on our communities. We must think about the intersections and how we highlight or erase them. We must ask ourselves why we are raising our voice and in service of what.

Our Fav Is Problematic (#SorryNotSorry, David Bowie)

We tend to hold the people of whom we are fans to the same moral standards we hold friends, often expecting them to echo our politics or sensibilities in the same way that their art, whatever it may be, speaks to us. By definition, fame requires those on the outside looking in to rely on imagination to prop up celebrity narratives; the public's glimpses into the lives and personalities of the famous are so mediated that though we think we know, we have no idea. Fame encourages us to fill in the blank spaces around these people with what we want to see, with what reaffirms our pre-existing assumptions. It's no surprise, then, that when it comes to art we like, and to the artists who make it, we expect to see reflections of ourselves in them, even on the simplest of levels.
- Rawiya Kameir

Understanding that "our faves are problematic"is not a carte-blanche to excuse people from their wrongdoing because "everyone is problematic" (and trust me, there are a lot of examples/receipts showing that most of the people we like have shoved their foot in their mouth pretty deeply). We still have a matter of degrees and impact.
And we must also remember that a mentality of "kill all people who do anything wrong ever" won't get us anywhere in the long run. We can both remember and forgive as a people. We can hold folks accountable and keep them with us. We can remember, not forgive, and still move forward. We have options.

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David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust


Most of us know of Bowie as an icon, as a rocker, an artist, an actor, a pioneer -- a larger than life concept -- rather than Bowie as a living, breathing individual. We have to contend with the fact that the human Bowie (not the persona he crafted or what he meant to us or what his music did for our souls and survival) may have abused his power and privilege.
It can be difficult and scary and destabilizing to hold the reality of loving someone and/or thinking they've done amazing things with the realities of those same people doing horrible things, but that's how the world is. This is what intersectionality is all about--about understanding the ways our intersecting identities make up our privileges and oppressions, about the complex ways in which our experiences and pieces form our whole.
In discussing David Bowie's death, we need to eliminate the transphobia, homophobia, and rape culture apologism in many of these conversations.

Just like the queer and trans people who aren't survivors of sexual abuse/assault should acknowledge the pain coming from survivors, straight and cisgender survivors should acknowledge the pain coming from queer and trans people. And those at the intersections -- the queer and trans survivors -- who feel confused as hell and torn (or staunchly on one side of the fence!) need our holding too. In discussing David Bowie's death, we need to eliminate the transphobia, homophobia, and rape culture apologism in many of these conversations. These are all toxic forces that hurt our world.We should not simply dismiss David Bowie's artistic legacy and the impact he had on many AND we should not dismiss the allegations of rape and the realities of how he was involved with a 14/15-year old when he was a powerful and revered adult.
We must also listen to the people who interacted with Bowie instead of putting words in their mouth while also recognizing that there are larger forces at play -- that just because someone does not feel victimized, it does not mean David Bowie did not take actions that were predatory and could have victimized someone else in the same situation.
We can say "it was the 70's!" and "things were different back then with all the free-flowing drugs!" or whatever to give context, but not to justify abuse and harmful behaviors. Some of us may feel puzzlement, disbelief, discomfort, and a lot of other emotions toward Lori M.'s account of her relationships with David Bowie and Jimmy Page, but we must understand that it is her story and not ours.
Just because some of us would have felt or acted differently, it does not erase her reality and her truth. And we must also pay attention to what this narrative does in the public sphere.
Marginalized people and experiences are usually not neatly categorized and picture-perfect for the consumption of social movements. And when they ARE, or seem to be, something fishy is probably going on.

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Older David Bowie (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Moving Through & Beyond "Kill All Rapists"


A carceral, punishment-based justice system where we value an eye for an eye will not save us. It may feel good in the moment and scratch that "revenge" itch, but it will not save us. Booting "bad people" off the island will leave us with an empty island. What will save us is compassion, understanding, accountability, transformation, and restoration of justice. This is not easy, but it is what we must do. And it is not SIMPLE, but it is what we must strive for if we truly want to live in a different, better world. It does not mean we ignore bad things or ~*~magically forgive people and hug them even when they threaten our existence~*~ (more on this in a second).
As far as David Bowie and his work, each of us has to figure out how these things connect in our lives. Some people may swear off his music, some will not. Some people may feel revulsion when they seem him in movies they used to love, some may not. We can figure out how we as a society may honor the great work and things he put out in the world while not erasing his wrongdoing.
Bowie is neither the first nor the last celebrity we'll have to think about in these ways. We better start practicing these trains of thought if we weren't doing so already (and many of us have been thinking about this for a while, especially in POC communities).
It's easy for me to have compassion for people I like and see eye-to-eye with, for people who haven't harmed me. Seeing those people as valuable humans who have worth, who deserve kindness and safety and care from the world and from me personally - that's easy. Extending the same compassion and open-heartedness to everyone - to the people that have hurt me, to the people I disagree with about everything, to the people who would never listen to me or extend any care or empathy or understanding to me, to the people who don't think I deserve humanity or kindness or safety - that takes a little more doing. Giving that kind of love is hard and painful.
Now, to be realistic about this, having compassion for people that have harmed me or that mean me harm doesn't mean I need to allow them to be near me. It doesn't mean I need to put my own safety at risk. And it also doesn't mean that this compassion can't genuinely coexist with real and powerful rage. But my hurt and my rage don't obviate a person's right to exist, to feel compassion, to be loved.
- Andy Izenson

As for me? I feel as Andy does. I choose to come to this from a perspective of radical love. Not always and not easily, but with intention and complexity and imperfection.
http://subtlecluster.tumblr.com/post/134001552016/this-radical-love-fosters-community-and-emerges
This post was originally published on Aida Manduley's blog and it has been slightly edited before being reposted here.

DAVID BOWIE © JUSTIN TALLIS via Getty Images DAVID BOWIE

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