by Conor Friedersdorf
A reader writes:
I was surprised to realize this at first, but the concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was definitely the most important single media experience for me. I was raised by very socially liberal parents who were all about being an individual and acknowledging and embracing diversity in many senses, and I went to a school that was much the same way. I had thought I understood that idea pretty well. But the fact is that while the rhetoric was expansive and the intentions very good, the people I was around and the world I lived in consisted of a pretty clearly defined box. My peers and I were meant to grow up to be successful professionals who were socially liberal and infinitely accepting of others, but fairly conservative in behavior and identification.
Against this backdrop, the effect Ziggy had on me was the real, visceral, stunning realization that different people really are different in more ways that I had ever imagined, and that there were so many more dimensions of "difference" than I had thought. It turned the whole concept of "we are all the same inside" on its head - to greater positive effect, for me. The experience allowed me to consider diversity in people without the political edge of Diversity that I was being educated about in school (and don't get me wrong - I'm still very glad I got that education). It also introduced me to the idea of actively constructing an identity on the outside as well as the inside--the ways in which managing one's appearance can be a form of true self-expression. Finally, it helped me realize that creating an identity doesn't need to be a massive undertaking of permanence - carefully assembling components that must never change (so you must be very, very sure about everything you choose to become) over the course of a lifetime; rather, it can be more like an artistic or academic career. You build something, enjoy it, live in it for a while, and move on. There's a through-line, but not an edifice.
Similarly, though I didn't realize it at the time, this revelation about how much I not only liked, but identified "different" people or ways of being and presenting oneself - though I couldn't have articulated that at the time - was huge. While my parents are wonderful, loving, intelligent, and progressive people, they live in a very specific world, and as their only child I could all too easily have grown up as their caricature. I think Ziggy Stardust did a great deal to help open the door to another path. The person I might have grown up to be today would not have a tattoo, would not have the same interests and ambitions, and would be a hell of a lot snobbier. She would not be comfortable with the slightly fluid aspects of her gender identity. She would probably have been horrified at the summer I spent in Damascus getting all kinds of dirty and making some risky choices - the best summer of my life - and she would certainly be less kind to herself.