Famous Bis: Freddie Mercury

By Jennie Roberson

December 01, 2019



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

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

Freddie Mercury started 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 giants 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.

It would be 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, 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; he 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!) 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 famous not only for his virtuoso vocals or having feverishly writing a string of genre-spanning hits (amusingly, he didn’t think he was very good at the piano and could barely read sheet music), but as 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 a stand in half at an early performance and ever after 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. Case in 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. Anyone who knows me knows that 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 died from complications related to 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.

I could go on about Mercury, and how important it is to recognize his bisexuality. So often people want to hold him up as a queer icon but deny his bisexuality, doing him, his music, and his very creative force a great disservice. Inhabiting multiple worlds of sexuality was clearly an influence on his work, from blending genres to having an outsider 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.