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In 2016, the world lost an entire tier of progressive icons right when it needed them most

From Bowie to Prince, George Michael to Carrie Fisher, 2016’s celebrity deaths hit a particular sore spot.

Prince, Bowie, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Muhammed Ali all stood up for their right to live as they wanted.
Javier Zarracina / Vox

In retrospect, David Bowie returning to the stardust from whence he came on January 10, 2016 was some horrific foreshadowing for the year of celebrity deaths to come.

Yes, people die every year, and sometimes their deaths are sudden and arbitrary. And no, 2016 may not categorically be “the worst,” no matter how many despairing memes claim otherwise.

But looking back at the public figures who left us in 2016 — a year streaked with chaos — reveals the loss of an entire tier of progressive icons whose lives embodied what it means to not just go boldly off the beaten path, but to love yourself for doing it.

David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, and George Michael all lived fantastic lives in defiance of societal norms that would’ve otherwise denied them that right. They stood and fought for many of the ideals that were dealt devastating blows in 2016, a year in which regressive “tradition” made a powerful comeback — or maybe more accurately, issued a powerful rebuke of recent progressive advancements.

In fact, when we look back at 2016, one of its most glaring hallmarks will undoubtedly be the determined uprising of conservative rage, which defined political and social movements from Brexit to the “alt-right.”

As tempting as it might be for many Americans to attribute this occurrence solely to Donald Trump and the racist, misogynistic, authoritarian, and anti-democratic rhetoric he regularly deployed on the campaign trail, the harder truth is that Trump is just one man riding a larger wave of fury that depends on fear, xenophobia, and a latent desire to return to a world that looks more similar to the one that existed 50 years ago.

The result is a political revolution whose goal is to quell any further revolutions.

And so while every year has its fair share of celebrity deaths, there’s something particularly cruel and even taunting about 2016 being the end for a whole host of people who spent their lives championing their differences and leading revolutions by embracing exactly who they were and wanted to be — especially when people told them they shouldn’t.

We lost David Bowie, who imbued rock music with electric currents of queer energy and iconography. He told surreal stories about aliens that spoke to people who had always felt a little different — stories that awakened people who had never considered the possibility of listening to their own weirdo hearts.

We lost Prince, who didn’t blur gender lines so much as straddle them, cocking his eyebrow suggestively and ripping a guitar solo with expert abandon. He showed the world what it meant to be a black man who didn’t match the perception of what black men were “supposed” to be — and what it meant to love that part of himself.

We lost Muhammed Ali, who called himself the Greatest of All Time knowing people would have a hard time arguing otherwise. A legend both inside and outside the boxing ring, Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War and found solace and power in his Muslim faith despite facing societal pressure to stay quiet, docile, manageable — which, of course, was never Ali’s style.

We lost Carrie Fisher and Patty Duke, beloved entertainers who brought laughter and comfort to millions by being unabashedly open and relentlessly smart about their struggles with mental illness.

We lost Alexis Arquette, who humanized transgender issues through a lifetime of vocal advocacy.

We lost Leonard Cohen, whose politically charged music quietly sparked revolutions in curious minds worldwide.

We lost George Michael, a brilliant pop artist who relished homosexual pleasure and refused to be ashamed of it, even when the world at large tried to shame the gayness right out of him.

We lost Gwen Ifill, an exceptionally smart journalist whose calm determination made her one of the most visible black women in news.

We lost, in other words, a hell of a lot of prominent advocates for acceptance, representation, and being openly yourself even if it meant deviating from societal expectations — and we lost them right at the moment when the desire to squash anything deviating from the traditional “norm” became a more powerful political stance than ever.

If you’re someone who identified with or admired any of these late heroes, from Bowie to Ifill to Ali to Fisher, it’s only right that you may be feeling the sting of their loss particularly hard.

But if you can take comfort in anything, let it be their audacious visibility, their daring to live outside accepted norms and even laugh about it. Let it be their strength in living their lives fully, warmly, and enthusiastically, by turning even the darkest of times into shining lights.

Let their lives, and not the fact that they dying in a tumultuous, confusing year, be their legacies — and your inspiration for forging ahead without them.

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