Famous Bis: Freddie Mercury

By Jennie Roberson

December 01, 2019

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When it comes to queer icons, there are icons, and then there are ICONS. With great queer icon-ness, though, can come great bi erasure. So one must not only be extra fabulous but extra vigilant in maintaining that bi identity.

So today we are gonna cover one of the greats. The biggies. Coming down from the highest pantheons of 20th-century rock voices, cat lovers, and bi heroes — today we are going to talk about the late, truly great Freddie Mercury.

Freddie laying on his couch holding a cat who has its eyes closed.

Freddie Mercury started off his life as Farrokh Bulsara, born in Zanzibar to Parsi Indian parents. Mercury spent most of his childhood between Zanzibar and a prep school in India, where he started going as “Freddie” and formed a band. Mercury was obsessed with Western pop music and made sure that his band covered classics from biggies of the genre like Little Richard. Since Zanzibar — now Tanzania — was a British protectorate, Mercury and his family were British citizens. So when Mercury was 18, and the Zanzibar Revolution broke out, he and his family fled their home and settled in Middlesex, England.

But it was a while before Freddie would add Mercury to his name and join the league of music legends. During and after his time studying graphic design at Ealing Art College (hey, look at that, art school students — you can amount to something!), Mercury held down jobs with his girlfriend Mary Austin at secondhand clothing stores as well as handling baggage at Heathrow Airport. Mercury flitted from band to band during this time, never quite finding a home but honing his voice; Mercury was blessed with an extra set of incisors, which he believed changed the shape of his mouth, and he attributed for the better range of his multi-octave voice.

Freddie onstage holding the mic stand and his other hand in a fist in the air singing.

In the spring of 1970, Mercury met guitarist (and future astrophysicist — yes, you read that right) Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, and quickly became the lead singer of their band, then named Smile. A year later, bassist John Deacon joined the crew, Mercury legally changed his last name to the first planet in the solar system and christened the newly formed troupe “Queen,” and the rock legend was born.

Mercury was not only famous for his virtuoso vocals or his feverish writing of a string of genre-spanning hits (which is amusing, since he didn’t think he was very good at the piano and could barely read sheet music), but he was considered one of the great live rock performers. While Steven Tyler of Aerosmith is notorious for draping his mic stands in scarves, Mercury used the mic stand as a prop in and of itself — he once broke one in half at an early performance and since then always used it as a theatrical prop, without the base, during his shows. Mercury’s charisma was legendary, known for connecting with every member of his audience, no matter the size of the venue. To point, his performance with the reunited band for the first Live Aid is considered one of the greatest rock performances of all time.

While Mercury did have a long-term relationship with Austin and considered her one of his closest friends, Mercury also had sexual and romantic relationships with men throughout his life. His other notable male lovers included Jim Hutton, an Irish hairdresser who was with him until his death, and Kenny Everett, a flamboyant DJ who helped create a buzz about “Bohemian Rhapsody” during his program. But Mary wasn’t his only relationship with a woman. Mercury was also known for having a relationship with Barbara Valentin, an Austrian actress.

On a personal note, I particularly love that this rock god was a dedicated O.G. cat dad. Mercury adored his (mostly rescue) cats… to the point of wearing vests with all of their visages on them, dedicating albums to them, and even writing a song about his favorite female feline. (Maybe he was getting back at Roger for having to write “I’m In Love With My Car.”) Each of the cats even had their own room in one of his mansions.

Now. Anyone who knows me knows I’m dedicated to my cat, but this is next level. Maybe I’ll join Freddie there once I can command a 100,000 seat venue.

While Mercury passed away from complications of AIDS in 1991, his legend lives on far beyond his mortal life. Queen is still touring now, with Adam Lambert trying to fill Mercury’s shoes. There are multiple statues of Mercury around the world. The guy even got one of the more memorable Google Doodles made for him, as well as countless documentaries and, most recently, the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). 

Bronze statue of Freddie posing with a hand in a fist in the air.
istock/MichalLudwiczak

I could go on and on and on about Mercury and how important it is to document, recognize, and validate his bisexuality. So often, people want to hold him up as a queer icon but deny that part of him when it really does him, his music, and his very creative force a great disservice. His inhabiting multiple worlds of sexuality while still having his singular experience was clearly an influence in his work, from blending genres to having a marginalized viewpoint that helped him connect to everyone in the audiences that were lucky enough to see him live. He was bi, he was a genius, and he is still deeply venerated and so sorely missed.

Thanks for everything, you killer queen.

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