Mercury in Retrograde

Freddie Mercury performs with Queen in 1977 (Photo by Carl Lender)

Having recently discovered the music of Queen and delving into the life of its fabulous frontman, Freddie Mercury, I uncovered a critical commonality: he and I were both raised in homes made rigid by religion. My parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Freddie’s parents were practicing Parsis, descendants of Zoroastrian Persian immigrants in India.

Zoroastrianism, founded by the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster), is an ancient religion that influenced Christianity, Judaism, and Islam with the ideas of one god, one savior, heaven and hell, good versus evil, resurrection, and judgement day. Marriage and childbirth are essential to the faith, because conversion is (mostly) banned. No conversion means that believers must create and indoctrinate future members of the faith for their religion to survive. Although there are about 150,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, only 60,000 of them are Indian Parsis—and there were only half as many in 1946 when Mercury was born. (Parsis must thank God for the Internet, where they can visit and link to a matrimonial page that will help them “Marry inside our community and SAVE our religion.”) Religious indoctrination may have delayed Mercury’s coming out as gay and prevented him from ever coming out publicly.

Before eight-year-old Farrokh (Mercury’s given name) began wearing the koshti, a long belt symbolizing the three principles of Zoroastrianism—good thoughts, good words, and good deeds—his parents sent him to boarding school. This is where he spent his adolescence, forming his first band at twelve and experiencing his first homosexual encounter at fourteen. Adolescence is difficult for all of us, but for kids who are taught that masturbation is a sin, that homosexuality is punishable by death, that sex is restricted to marriage, and that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, adolescence can be hell. Perhaps Mercury’s extended separation from his parents during this time was a good thing, allowing him to discover his true self.

By the time Mercury turned twenty-one in 1967, homosexuality was no longer outlawed in his family’s new homeland of Britain. But apparently even broaching the subject was taboo at his parents’ Middlesex house. According to a 2012 interview in the Telegraph, his mother Jer Bulsara claimed, “He protected us by never discussing these matters.” It is beyond sad that Mercury felt forced to hide who he was from his parents, to the point of never publicly owning his homosexuality in order to “protect” them. This attempt at remaining in the closet is especially unfortunate since, according to at least one family friend, the Bulsaras knew that their son was gay. Rusi Dalal told the Mirror, “They were very unhappy about his homosexuality. Being gay is not accepted in the Zoroastrian religion. We also have very few believers, and the religion can only be passed on through the father to his children. Obviously a gay man will have no children, and this deeply upset the Bulsara family.”

In his late twenties, now firmly established as Queen’s quintessential provocateur, Mercury wrote the song “Liar,” in which he seeks forgiveness from “Father” and promises “Mama” that he will behave and pray. His frustration fairly flies off the page:

Liar, liar, they never ever let you win.
Liar, liar, everything you do is sin.
Liar, they bring you down before you begin.
Now let me tell you this,
So now you know you could be dead before they let you…

Some journalists who interviewed Mercury were aware of the connection between his parents’ strict religious views and his need to keep his homosexuality secret. “Gay pop stars who trade on their sex appeal obviously feel extra-conscious of the need not to alienate their female fans,” reported the Sunday Times Magazine in 1996. “But Freddie, you sense, was more concerned with keeping the truth from his family.” Perhaps plausible deniability also played a role in his parents’ refusal to acknowledge his lifestyle: If they didn’t see his homosexuality, they didn’t have to concede their son’s eternal damnation. Twisted reasoning for members of a religion whose most important maxim is: there is only one path, and that is the path of truth.

The titular song from Innuendo, Queen’s last album before Mercury’s death, provides a peek into his perspective as death approached:

Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion.
Through the eons, and on and on,
Oh yes, we’ll keep on tryin’,
We’ll tread that fine line….
If there’s a God or any kind of justice under the sky,
If there’s a point, if there’s a reason to live or die,
If there’s an answer to the questions we feel bound to ask,
Show yourself—destroy our fears—release your mask.

Aided by his parents’ denial, Mercury maintained his demanding duality, so that friends and lovers knew one version of him and his family another until his death from AIDS on November 24, 1991, at the age of forty-five. He had a Zoroastrian funeral in which many of his possessions were burned and after which, so was he. (Fire represents purity and enlightenment to Zoroastrians.) In his book Mercury and Me, his long-term lover Jim Hutton wrote, “The service was therefore an unusual one, conducted by priests in white robes chanting traditional prayers that I didn’t understand….When he was alive we had never spoken about our beliefs.”

According to his parents’ holy book, Mercury had, famously and frequently, committed an unforgivable sin:

O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! If a man voluntarily commits the unnatural sin, [sodomy] what is the penalty for it? What is the atonement for it? What is the cleansing from it?

Ahura Mazda [God] answered:

For that deed there is nothing that can pay, nothing that can atone, nothing that can cleanse from it; it is a trespass for which there is no atonement, for ever and ever. — Avesta: Vendidad: Fargard 8: verse 27

Nonetheless, Zoroastrians have no qualms about claiming Freddie Mercury as one of their own. At a 2013 unveiling of a Parsi sculpture, where Mercury’s mother and sister were honored guests, artist Luke Perry told the Halesowen News, “everyone knows Freddie as a rock star but he was a devoted Zoroastrian.” His mother, who years earlier claimed her son “respected our religion but was not religious himself,” used the opportunity to update his religiosity: “Freddy was a Parsee and he was proud of it.” Just don’t ask her how the religion that relegated him to the fringes of his family and would have rejected him unequivocally if confronted with any evidence that he was gay now reconciles itself to promote Mercury as its most prominent member.

Zoroastrianism is not the only dying religion guilty of this breathtaking hypocrisy. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who shun hundreds of people every year (including me) for committing “unforgivable sins,” celebrate Michael Jackson and Prince as two of their most cherished members.

Thursday marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Mercury’s death. Let’s remember him for what we know he was: a wildly talented gay man who shared his incredible voice and song with us.