We had a shared history Freddie Mercury and I, though we were born a generation apart. We were both born in Tanzania, I in Arusha in Tanzania in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, he on Zanzibar the clove-scented island that lies just sixty-eight km off the mainland coast. Both of us born into Indian migrant families but from outlier Indian communities. He was born Farrokh Bulsarara into the minority Parsi community – Iranian immigrants to India, followers of the Zoroastrian religion. I was born Steve Pereira into the Goan community – Portuguese colonial subjects othered in our Europeanised, Catholic ways. We were Indian but also, always something else as well.
We were both sent back from Tanzania to India to study in pseudo-British style boarding schools (He Anglican, me Catholic). We both emerged – me definitely, he arguably – very much one of Macaulay’s notorious children; anglicised Indians, ‘a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals (hmm …) and in intellect …’ We both left Tanzania late in our late teens – he for the UK, me for Canada.
I gather from what I have read about Freddie that we had a similar response to our arrival in British land (or versions thereof). We thought we had arrived home only to discover that to most others we were just another Paki immigrant.
We diverged then. Farrokh Bulsarara morphed into the culturally ambivalent – fair skin, striking aquiline features – Freddie Mercury. I kept my culturally ambivalent name but took my darker skin, snub nose, round-faced, kinky-haired self and became a born-again Indian playing with being a cultural activist. And yes, we were both gay, bi, whatever before I settled on gayness and it seems now that Freddie sort of did the same.
And that was how I first became aware of Freddie: I met his gayness before I knew anything else about him. When I discovered that he was Indian, and we had a shared background, I distinctly remember now over thirty years ago being winded, rendered breathless. I couldn’t believe he was one of us.
My first distinct memory of Freddie was the Live Aid concert on 13 July 1985. It was Saturday evening in Mississauga, a suburban Toronto city where I lived my then schizophrenic semi-closeted existence with my parents and brothers. Straightness in the suburban home, gay abandon in the city.
That evening I was heading into the city to meet a group of friends at Boots, a bar in the heart of the gay village. When I came downstairs, my parents were watching the Live Aid special. ‘Why?’ I asked. Murder She Wrote, and that ilk of TV was more their fare. ‘It’s about Africa’ my father said like he was stating the bloody obvious. So starved were we all for any recognition in the western media of the worlds we came from that any mention of Africa snapped our attention. I looked cursorily at the TV screen as I was saying goodbye to them and then Freddie entered the screen and I was riveted to the spot.
I had never seen Freddie or Queen on screen before. We were fairly fresh off the boat in Canada having arrived five years earlier from Tanzania, which was then a closed off socialist state. We had had very limited access to Western pop culture. We had no TV. Effectively one radio station which was the Voice of Kenya. The movies we got were a diet of Chinese Kung Fu films, Bollywood melodramas and, in a fist bump to African culture, American Blaxploitation films.
I had heard of the band and even had a cassette tape of Bohemian Rhapsody inherited from a Turkish roommate at university (who found the music bizarre). I loved the theatricality of it. I listened to the tape to destruction. I wasn’t very much of a music fan – enjoyed pop and blues mostly – but music didn’t captivate me the way that film, literature and theatre did – and I didn’t have much of curiosity about Queen. Those pre-internet days, you had to make an effort to get information … I didn’t care enough. Until Live Aid, when I saw Freddie perform.
Seeing Freddie on stage then for the first time was a revelation. It wasn’t the performance – which even I knew enough to know was freaking awesome. What got me was the fact that he was so gay. That whole ‘Village People look’. That aggressive, unrepentant bulge in his crotch. The prancing and the preening. How could he be so gay, and nobody said anything? Nobody that I knew anyway. My parents watching the show were oblivious, but then they thought the Village People were just men in costumes.
I was buzzing by the time I got to the club, walked past a dozen Freddie clones at the bar and met my friends in the back patio. They were largely gay South Asian men I had met and bonded with through support groups. We were South Asians from a variety of places in East and South Africa, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji; of various ages but mainly middle class and of a middling conservative, liberal bent. We were – and I write aware of the generalisation – church/mosque/temple-going, closeted gay men with jobs in the mainstream.
The guys I spoke to then about Freddie and Queen, knew of him and the music and even knew then of his Parsee, Zanzibari background, but played at being singularly unimpressed by that. I was flabbergasted. That strutting, preening butch queen, Rock & Roll god was Indian! Why were we not as South Asian queers shouting that out from the rooftops? We were fighting for visibility, for recognition from within our communities of the validity of our gayness and fighting for acknowledgement from the queer community of our cultural specificity. With Freddie we could say to everybody look we exist and do a fucking double take because we can be superstars.
The fact that Freddie never actually said he was gay was a problem, yes. But! Everything he did screamed camp hyper-articulated gayness. Did he really have to say the words? Really?
But in the essentialised identity politic that was the imperative of the time, apparently, that was the deal breaker for the queer community. For us South Asians it seemed to me there was another agenda at play as well. For some of us who survived by being on the down-low, Freddie Mercury was an embarrassment, and the least said about him the better. We didn’t have any gays in our village, we said. Nothing to see here. So, when the press elided his cultural background or foregrounded his Iranian history as opposed to his Indian one in some kind of hierarchy of exotification, we didn’t complain too much.
For me though, seeing Freddie strutting his stuff on that stage opened up a portal out of the Macaulay sarcophagus I had locked myself in. I was already chafing at my preppy, middle-class – yes bourgeois – family and social circle. I began drifting away towards a darker, much more sordid, but so much more exciting world. It wasn’t just the sexual experimentation; it was the exhilaration of meeting people who committed themselves to their passions, who believed in nothing but themselves (and often not even that) but who lived their lives with a desperate abandon and intensity. The question was in the zeitgeist: Who Wants to Live Forever? Tellingly the title of a posthumous documentary on Freddie.
But I was emerging into the scene too late. AIDS was devastating the gay scene. Dionysus was rapidly exiting stage left pursued by the orthodoxy of the new GLBTIQ community desperate to substitute the transgressive with the banal in order to sanitise the real. We were terrified of being tarred by the same brush that Joe Haines of the Daily Mirror used for his searingly-foul obituary of Freddie:
… [he was] a man bent – the apt word in the circumstances – on abnormal sexual pleasures, corrupt, corrupting and a drug taker… his private life is a revolting tale of depravity, lust and downright wickedness.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the Brian Singer film that started this memory trip, is everything the capital C Critics say of it: the screenplay is clichéd, the tropes tired, characters one dimensional. However, it is much more than the sum of its parts. It is a deeply, moving and affecting film, saved by the music and Rami Malik’s thrilling performance as Freddie – as the box office takings have proven. Once again Freddie has thumbed his nose at the orthodoxy and thwarted the Critics. I found the film deeply, lump in the throat, affecting. Two-thirds of the way through the film as Freddie’s illness was made apparent, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. It wasn’t just Freddie I was mourning. It was the loss of a time and the loss of all the truly radical people who through self-destructive hedonism were on the cusp of reshaping the way we dealt with our sexuality, our creativity, the notion of family and of relationships. That all died along with Freddie Mercury: that first Indian, British queer Rock and Roll star.
Steve R E Pereira is a Melbourne-based writer and Creative Producer working on performance and art related community engagement and community development projects.