The XS-sized racerback white vest, tucked into tight stonewashed jeans. That tash. The homoerotic S&M leather armband. The masc-drag. The colourful flamboyance. The fact that this era’s biggest gay icon, Lady Gaga, named herself after one of his band’s songs. Freddie Mercury wasn’t just a gay icon. He was the gay icon.
So with his status so definitive, why did Rami Malek – who plays him in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – all but deny it when asked? It may have to do with the PR briefing he was given for the roll-out of this strictly PG film, so as to appeal to the widest possible audience. But this was Malek’s opportunity to put to bed once and for all the allegations levelled against the movie: that it’s a form of queer or bi erasure; that it sanitises Mercury’s sexual orientation; that it’s a moralising tale in which evil gays lead poor Freddie astray into the world of S&M, disco, cocaine and seedy basement rooms, ultimately resulting in his Aids-related death.
Those critics seem to have watched a different film to me; I thought it dealt sensitively with many of these topics without making them the overall focus. What homophobia were people seeing in the film? As someone who used to manage Stonewall’s communications and campaign to promote fair and accurate representation of LGBTQI people in the media, I thought this was a job well done.
Remember: this is a PG-certificate film about Queen, not an 18-rated one about Freddie Mercury. Legend has it that Mercury once smuggled Princess Diana dragged up as a man into a Vauxhall gay pub to give her a rare night out away from the paparazzi. Another story has him throwing parties where dwarves had trays of cocaine strapped to their heads for partygoers to snort (alluded to in the film). There’s another, 18-rated Mercury biopic waiting to be made.
For Dr João Florêncio, lecturer in history of modern and contemporary art at Exeter University, there’s a trade-off at play: “In recent blockbusters of LGBTQI lives, the characters are usually portrayed as possessing some kind of redeeming features that ‘excuse’ their gender or sexuality – their queerness – and allow them to come across as just like everybody else or as someone who has excelled in some domain of their lives – such as Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody or Harvey Milk in Milk.”
“In cases like in Bohemian Rhapsody,” Florencio says, “the writing is extremely selective of the aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life that are worthy of being in a cinematic memorial: Freddie the musical genius, not Freddie the gay man living with Aids.”
Part of the issue is who “owns” Freddie Mercury. Rockers? Boomers? Gays? The bisexual community? Brits? The Zoroastrian community? Zanzibaris? Indians? He was as complex as anyone else. He participated in his own racial erasure by changing his name from Farrokh Bulsara. As much as a British gay man like me wants to claim him as my own icon, we must share him.
For Dr Penny Miles from the University of Bath, the film is merely being historically accurate: “It’s indicative of societal responses to gay identities at the time. At first, Freddie Mercury’s sexuality was fetishised, then stigmatised. The stigmatisation he faced served to silence his sexual identity, and this is replicated in the film.”
But what about the broader question of what film-makers portray on screen? “Sexuality is continually sanitised in Hollywood films,” says Dr Elliot Evans, lecturer at the University of Birmingham. “Clearly this film focuses on Queen as a band and not on Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality or his HIV status – although some might argue that this is very much central to the story.” However, Evans says the film passes GLAAD’s “Vito Russo test” by including an LGBTQ character who is central to the plot and who is not defined by their sexuality. “That’s more than can be said for most of the films coming out of Hollywood.”
Mercury’s queerness was not just about having sex with and loving men. It was about existing on the edges of an unequal society, where outsider status encouraged defiant creativity and outrageous subversion. For many, Mercury represents a time before assimilation, before the beige-ification of queerness – the compromise we accept for equality. But if we want our flawed hero desanitised in all his debauched, hedonistic and nonconforming glory, we should find the nearest Princess Diana lookalike – and get filming.