Queen's Freddie Mercury never wanted to have an in-depth discussion about his sexuality with the public. However, it was well known that this icon of rock had had relationships with both men and women. At one point he claimed to be bisexual, but he may have been a gay man who got involved with members of the opposite sex because he was trying to survive — and build a career — in a very homophobic world. Mercury died of an AIDS-related illness at the age of 45, taking his personal insights into his sexuality to the grave. Yet a look at the circumstances of his life, loves and career can still offer insight into who he truly was.
Mercury hid his sexuality from his family
For most of Mercury's life, the wider world didn't accept gays and bisexuals. Born in 1946, he grew up at a time when same-sex attraction was considered a mental illness, a tragedy, a joke, or some combination of the three. LGBT people were barely represented in the media, and the message society had to offer was that not being heterosexual was unacceptable.
With homophobia rampant, many gay men felt pressured to hide their sexuality, including from their families. Mercury's Parsee parents practiced Zoroastrianism, a religion that saw being gay as a type of demon worship. While Mercury remained close to his family throughout his life, he never discussed his sexuality with them. In fact, his parents were apparently told that a male lover living at Mercury's home in London was the gardener.
He openly dated both men and women
As a young man Mercury dated women, and he entered into a serious relationship with Mary Austin in the 1970s. The two lived together for several years and even got engaged before Mercury told Austin he was bisexual (her response was that she thought he was gay). The two would maintain a close friendship after splitting up, with Austin continuing to appear at his side in public. He called her the love of his life and left her the bulk of his estate in his will.
Mercury was also seeing men, both while he was with Austin and after ending their sexual relationship. These included record executive Paul Prenter, David Minns, chef Joe Fanelli, DHL courier Tony Bastin, German restaurateur Winfried "Winnie" Kirchberger, and Jim Hutton, who was with him until Mercury's death in 1991. Yet Mercury didn't entirely give up on women: in the 1980s his female paramours included German actress Barbara Valentin.
Mercury also didn't limit himself to steady relationships. While on the road in Queen's early days, Brian May, who shared hotel rooms with Mercury, saw his bandmate with female companions. In 2017 May told the Sunday Times, "It was fairly obvious when the visitors to Freddie’s dressing room started to change from hot chicks to hot men." Cities like New York and Munich had gay scenes where Mercury, who'd called his sex drive "enormous" and who'd sung about being "a sex machine ready to reload," found one-night stands and more.
Being a rock star allowed Mercury to push gender boundaries
Mercury was the one who suggested naming the band Queen, which at the time was a derogatory term for a gay man. Onstage, he wore outfits that left gender and societal norms behind. Among his sartorial choices were leotards, angel-wing cloaks, tight shorts, and leather or PVC attire that evoked a biker image then popular in gay nightclubs.
Being a star allowed Mercury to push some boundaries, but he still lived at a time when honesty about his attraction to men could have limited his career, and the careers of his bandmates. For someone who wanted his music to be heard, and who was loath to drive fans away, being open about his sexuality was something to avoid.
Yet even in this climate, Mercury was able to use music to express himself—and he may have said more than a quick glance at his catalogue shows. For some—including renowned lyricist Tim Rice—"Bohemian Rhapsody," a worldwide hit written by Mercury, was a coming-out song. In this interpretation, lyrics like "Mama, just killed a man" could be a reference to Mercury doing away with his heterosexual self. Of course, Mercury himself never confirmed this take on the song.
Mercury didn't label his sexuality even after his AIDS diagnosis
The exact circumstances of how Mercury was infected with HIV are unknown, but the virus was spreading through New York City's gay community in the late 1970s and early '80s. This lines up with when Mercury was often visiting nightclubs and bars, and having one-night stands. (At the time, people weren't aware of how the virus was transmitted.)
As the 1980s progressed, it was obvious many gay men were getting sick and there was talk about a "gay cancer"; Mercury himself knew people with the disease. After displaying some signs of illness, his own HIV infection was confirmed by the late '80s. Even after developing AIDS, he denied reports about his illness and being gay. He was more upfront with his bandmates, but never told his family why he was ill.
One reason for Mercury's silence was worry about how his public image and legacy would change with this revelation, which at the time would have been enough to confirm him as gay. It wasn't until November 23, 1991, that he issued a statement that said in part: "Following enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV-positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me." He died the next day. Mercury's statement didn't mention his sexuality—meaning he maintained his policy of not commenting on the matter to the very end.