Life

The Unlikely, Lifesaving Queerness of Bob Dylan

The bard of the ’60s wasn’t gay, but his art made a huge difference for those who were.

Baez and Dylan sing into one mic as Ginsberg and Flack sing into another during a performance
Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and Roberta Flack at a benefit concert for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter at New Jersey’s Clinton state prison in 1975. Bettmann/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Bob Dylan turned 80 on Monday. Lionized, denigrated, dismissed, and reborn, he was finally celebrated properly, as a great poet, in 2016 with the Nobel Prize in Literature. But on the occasion of his birthday, I would like to offer him one more unlikely honorific: queer icon.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Dylan is gay. In his autobiography he celebrated his devotion to the “eclectic girls … non-homemaker types” whom he met when he first arrived in Greenwich Village, and that passion has never wavered. But there’s something else about Dylan that hasn’t wavered either, something that I sensed when he first strode out onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in 1965 and have followed as he went electric the following year, as we spoke for my first book on 1968, as I imbibed all of his words and music ever since. What made Dylan special, made him a queer icon and ally, throughout all that time is this: Comfort with queerness doesn’t require a particular sexual orientation. It’s a political stance, a clarifying lens, a challenge to orthodoxy, a celebration of difference.

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Dylan’s high school yearbook revealed, “Wants to be with Little Richard.” That, of course, was an homage to that founding rocker’s music, not the gay part of himself that Little Richard eventually acknowledged. The rest of Dylan’s original idols were without any sexual question marks: Buddy Holly (whom Dylan locked eyes with at a performance in his birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, three days before Holly’s death), Elvis Presley, and, of course, Woody Guthrie. But after those artists, the gay French poet Rimbaud was one of Dylan’s biggest influencers. It was Rimbaud who wrote, “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”). “When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense,” Dylan wrote in his autobiography. From then on, his comfort with the Other would be a central fact of his being.

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His next idols were all boisterous iconoclasts: “Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti … I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic … it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.” Dylan quickly realized the Beats’ message was the perfect antidote for the “sad situation” of his 1950s parents, which Dylan described to me this way: “They were probably just into no down payment and aluminum cans and mortgages and Eisenhower-McCarthy. That type of thing. I don’t know what kind of knowledge they could have really passed on.” At the dawn of the ’60s, the bar mitzvah boy from Hibbing, Minnesota, who fled college for Manhattan’s bohemian coffeehouses found just what he had been searching for, when he embraced the Beats’ credo of revolt against all that crushing ’50s conformity.

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The alchemy happened as soon as he set the Beat’s message to music. That magical compounding made his songs a thousand times more powerful than his mentors’ words had ever been on the printed page. Within just a couple of years, Dylan’s records were spinning on the turntables of millions of the smartest, restless post–World War II adolescents, from Tokyo to Rome and everywhere in between.

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His first big songs—especially “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ”—provided the opening chords of the soundtrack for a revolution, the one that briefly challenged almost every convention we had grown up with. These were songs that lifted us up and called us to action. It was the music from Dylan and the Beatles and Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin and Stevie Wonder and a thousand others that drew a red line between us and our elders.

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Dylan celebrated all of the Beats as members of the invented world of his fathers. But Allen Ginsberg, the gay one, was the only one who became a close friend and frequent collaborator. They met for the first time at a Boxing Day party in 1963. The hosts were Ted and Eli Wilentz, the co-owners of the Eighth Street Bookshop. The matchmaker for Dylan and Ginsberg was Al Aronowitz, the ubiquitous rock ’n’ roll journalist who, just seven months later, made the most important introduction of all when he introduced the Beatles to Dylan (and marijuana) at the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue.

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Eli’s son, the cultural historian Sean Wilentz, wrote that it was just a few weeks before their first meeting when Ginsberg heard his first Dylan record—Freewheelin’—which also happens to be the first one my oldest brother thrust into my hands in 1964, after the horror of hearing me listen to a Donovan song. No one was more affected by Dylan’s music than Ginsberg. According to Wilentz, when he first listened to the haunting verses of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” he wept. “ ’Cause,” the poet said, “it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation from … Beat illumination.”

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To understand the importance of Dylan’s first reaction to Ginsberg, one must remember that in this era six years before the 1969 Stonewall uprising, Ginsberg and James Baldwin were two of just a handful of openly queer people in America. And just nine days before Ginsberg’s fateful first meeting with Dylan, a front-page headline in the New York Times blared, “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern.” The diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association proclaimed every single queer person was sick, and enlightened institutions like the Times routinely embraced psychiatry as the only palliative for their collective misery.

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In a time like that, you had to be seriously hip—a genuine revolutionary—to be as nonchalant as Dylan was when Ginsberg began their acquaintance, according to Aronowitz, by making an explicit pass at the 22-year-old blue-eyed cherub. “Allen was really a flaming queer,” the rock journalist explained later. But according to Sean Wilentz, Dylan was completely unfazed. Instead of freaking out, he invited Ginsberg to “join him on a flight to Chicago, where he was scheduled to play … the following night.” Ginsberg declined, worrying, he recalled, that “I might become his slave or something, his mascot.”

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So there was no sex but there was certainly love. Dylan called Ginsberg “holy” and “the only writer I know.” They had immediate, enormous influence on each other. And every nascent gay boy like me certainly noticed that The Spokesman for our generation was a very public friend of one of the only openly gay men in America. That was especially obvious after Dylan did in fact make Ginsberg look like his mascot, by putting him in the background when Dylan held up cue cards of the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the iconic opening scene of Dont Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s brilliant documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour in Britain.

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Ginsberg’s friendship had a huge impact on Dylan’s view of sexuality, as Andrew Warrick pointed out last year in the Michigan Daily. Although most of us wouldn’t know about the conversation until it was published two decades later in Robert Shelton’s Dylan biography, as early as 1966 Dylan was enunciating a philosophy that would have matched the ideas of the Gay Liberation Front, a post-Stonewall radical organization that wasn’t even born yet.

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“I truthfully can tell you that male and female are not here to have sex,” Dylan told Shelton in a late-night plane conversation his biographer recorded between stops on his 1966 tour. “You know, that’s not the purpose. I don’t believe that that’s God’s will, that females have been created so that they can be a counterpart of man’s urge. There are too many other things that people just won’t let themselves be involved in. Sex and love have nothing to do with female and male. It is just whatever two souls happen to be. It could be male or female, and it might not be male or female. It might be female and female or it might be male and male. You can try to pretend that it doesn’t happen, and you can make fun of it and be snide, but that’s not really the rightful thing. I know, I know.”

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Even when that statement remained hidden, Dylan’s attitude was already visible—and part of one of the most powerful anthems he ever wrote.

Just before his first meeting with Ginsberg, which was barely five weeks after John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Dylan scrawled out a poem inspired by that frightful day. It ended like this:

the colors of Friday were dull
as cathedral bells were gently burnin
strikin for the gentle
strikin for the kind
strikin for the crippled ones
an’ strikin for the blind

The poem became the basis for “Chimes of Freedom,” the most important song on Dylan’s fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. Sean Wilentz said it represented “both Dylan’s reconnection to Beat aesthetics and the transformation of those aesthetics into song.”

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The ambiguity of Dylan’s lyrics was one of the secrets behind his connection to so many different kinds of listeners. For millions like me, “Chimes of Freedom” had the power of a rocket because we heard its words as a rare endorsement of our secret project—the cause of queer liberation. He sang of bells:

Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake …

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Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind …

Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail …

And most importantly:

For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

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And finally:

For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

It was no coincidence that Ginsberg was with Dylan inside the studio when Dylan recorded those words. “He’s singing for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” Ginsberg exalted.

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In the long run, what was most important was Dylan’s central role in the all-out assault on authority—the pummeling of conventional wisdom—which turned the apocalypses of the 1960s into the essential prologue for the gay liberation of the 1970s. If the experts (and the government) could be wrong about everything from the Vietnam War to marijuana, even the psychiatrists engaging in massive medical malpractice by trying to make all of their queer patients straight could finally be discredited.

Iconoclasts like Dylan and the Beatles and Janis Joplin and Laura Nyro sent a vital subliminal message to the emerging generation of young queers. The example of these superstars proved that outsiders could become genuine heroes in an age like this. After the conformity and repression of the 1950s, barely punctured by the Beats, that ’60s message was big enough to rescue millions of us in the ’70s—and in every decade since.

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