Freddie Mercury was so secretive about his sexuality that even his Queen band members were left in the dark
While it's commonly accepted now that legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was gay, it was a fact that was much less obvious during the singer's prime
Rami Malek has rightly earned plaudits for his possibly Oscar-worthy performance as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in musical biopic 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' but many have taken issue to how the singer's often controversial lifestyle was watered down so the feature could be released with a PG-13 tag.
If the rumors are to be believed, it was this "creative difference" that resulted in Sacha Baron Cohen walking out of the project in 2013. However, when you take a stroll through Mercury's life, you come to realize the sexuality of the iconic frontman — although a hot topic today — was not an open secret during the early part of his career.
"What will I be doing in twenty years' time? I'll be dead, darling! Are you crazy?" Not many knew these words uttered by Mercury during a 1984 interview would prove to be prophetic. Mercury would die just seven years later, in 1991, due to complications from AIDS, and even during those last years, he was, as he had always been, fiercely protective of his privacy — something that can be proven by the fact he denied suffering from the disease for years and only announced he had contracted it just one day before his death. That no-so-anecdotal piece of evidence from his life offers some insight into why, back then, his homosexuality was a point of contention.
In his prime, one could reasonably describe Mercury in numerous ways— eccentric, charismatic, flamboyant, captivating, enigmatic. But gay? Not according to his bandmates, at least, not for the longest time, even though it now seems so obvious. Why? Mercury's shyness and secretiveness, especially when he was not performing on stage or was around those he did not know well, is something that's quite well documented, but numerous accounts suggest he wasn't a chatty Cathy around his closest confidants either.
See Brian May's comments to the Daily Express in 2008, when the lead guitarist confessed maybe Freddie himself wasn't aware of his sexuality. "No, I didn’t know," he had said. "I don’t think even HE was fully cognizant in the beginning."
"You’re talking to someone who shared rooms with Fred on the first couple of tours, so I knew him pretty well. I knew a lot of his girlfriends and he certainly didn’t have boyfriends in those days, that’s for sure," he added.
Mercury's sexual orientation was a source of constant speculation amongst fans, critics, and journalists alike, who all tried to read into the legendary's singers mannerisms to predict if he was indeed gay or whether it was all an act. Take a review of Queen's performance at Wembley Arena in 1984 for UK-based rock magazine Kerrang!, where Mercury was described as a "posing, pouting, posturing tart," or the fact that he was often called a "scene-queen."
It didn't help that Mercury carefully avoided giving out statements that were conclusive either, and one got the feeling he did so very much on purpose. "I remember Freddie being asked if he was gay in one of his early interviews and he said: ‘Yes, darling, of course. I am as gay as a daffodil,'" May divulged. "It was a neat way of sidestepping the issue because actually, Fred was no fool."
Then, when asked directly, "So how about being bent?" during a December 1974 interview, he replied, "You're a crafty cow. Let's put it this way: there were times when I was young and green. It's a thing schoolboys go through. I've had my share of schoolboy pranks," adding he wasn't "going to elaborate further."
Born Farrokh Bulsara in Stone Town in the British protectorate of Zanzibar (now Tanzania) to Parsi parents from Gujarat, India, Mercury did his primary-level schooling in India at St. Peter's school, an elite British-style boarding school just for boys In Panchgani.
Those "schoolboy pranks" Mercury had brought up were corroborated by schoolmistress Janet Smith in 'Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury.' "He had this habit of calling one 'darling,' which I must say seemed a little fey. It simply wasn't something boys did in those days," she was quoted saying. "It was accepted that Freddie was homosexual when he was here. Normally, it would have been, 'Oh, God, you know, it's just ghastly.' But with Freddie somehow it wasn't. It was okay."
His family was forced to flee Zanzibar for good for safety reasons in 1967 when he was still only 17. The revolution in the country that saw thousands of Arabs and Indians killed meant the Bulsaras eventually settled at a small house at 22 Gladstone Avenue in Middlesex, leaving behind their former lives. Mercury, for his part, left behind the Farrokh identity to embrace his Freddie persona; though according to classmates from St. Peters, it was a name he had already begun using in school.
And with Freddie came the "wildly androgynous" outfits and the theatrical sense of camp, only serving to stoke the rumors around his sexuality further.
"I think there was a slight suspicion but it never occurred to me that he was gay," May revealed to the Express. "In those days it was the fashion to be kind of dandyish and I suppose we had a hand in creating the fashion, so there was this doubt in people’s minds as to whether you might be gay or not. It was a convenient little place to be."
But one gets the creeping suspicion that a lot of what Mercury did was done to provoke, including the band's name, which was finalized when he and drummer Roger Taylor were still struggling to make ends meet at the bohemian Kensington market.
"The name was Freddie's idea," Taylor said. "In those days, there was a pretty eccentric crowd there, and a lot of them were gay and a lot of them pretended to be, and it just seemed to fit in," Taylor added. "I didn't like the name originally and neither did Brian, but we got used to it."
Many suspected that the band's most famous track, the revolutionary six-minute 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which consisted of an intro, a ballad segment, an operatic passage, a hard rock part, and a reflective coda, was somehow an ode his sexuality as well. It was quite the popular theory too, with even then-manager John Reid subscribing to it. But it was a notion that May rejected outright.
The guitarist said in a 2017 interview with the Times that Mercury only told them he was into men "years after it was obvious," but that the signs had been increasingly obvious. "The visitors to Freddie's dressing room started to change from hot chicks to hot men," he explained. "It didn't matter to us; why should it? But Freddie had this habit of saying, 'Well, I suppose you realize this, that or the other,' in this very offhand way – and he did say at some point, 'I suppose you realize I've changed in my private life?'"
Yet, the figment of doubt around his sexuality would always remain while he lived. Why? Part of it most certainly had to do with how, for the longest time, he was in an intimate relationship with Mary Austin, whom he had been introduced to by May. While their romance would end after Mercury cheated on her with a male American record executive, they would remain close friends until his death.
Mercury was always protective of Austin and the regard with which he held her shone through in the way he spoke about her after they'd gone their separate ways. A quote from the singer in 'Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury,' reads, "All my lovers asked me why they couldn't replace Mary [Austin], but it's simply impossible. The only friend I've got is Mary, and I don't want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We believe in each other, that's enough for me."
That, in combination with the fact that he would often distance himself from partner Jim Hutton during public events, meant one would never be too sure. Maybe he wasn't gay and just bisexual, people wondered. That notion was only reinforced further with his death when he decided to leave to her, and not to any of his male partners, his Georgian mansion in London's posh Kensington area.
And not only did he leave her the mansion, but also the bulk of his multi-million-pound fortune, with an income for life from his vast record sales and publishing. She also happens to be the only person who knows where the rock legend's ashes are located.
While it's now a commonly accepted fact that Mercury was gay, it's unfair, and maybe even untoward, to remember the vocalist on the basis of his sexuality alone. To do so would be to disregard the countless other aspects of his dazzling persona, as well as his significant and timeless contributions to not just rock, but music as a whole.
It's May's poignant view on his former bandmate that do the frontman the most justice. "I know that all through his life Fred didn’t think that whether he was gay or not was important," he was quoted saying. "He loved music, he loved his work, and he didn’t want anything to get in the way. Anyone who portrays Fred as purely a gay story is missing a lot of the point."