GEORGE MICHAEL MAY HAVE LEFT A HUGE MUSICAL LEGACY, BUT HIS DIFFICULT JOURNEY, FROM CLOSETED GLOBAL SEX SYMBOL TO RADICAL CHAMPION OF GAY SEX, HOLDS A LESSON FOR US ALL.
In an early episode of the 2006 spoof TV show, Star Stories, a scene takes place backstage at the BBC’s Top of the Pops, post Wham!’s first appearance on the show in 1982. In a reference to horror film The Ring, Boy George scuttles up to George Michael and says: “I’m well noted for preferring a cup of tea to any sexual activity, but I can detect the scent of a homosexual from a mile off. I put it to you, George Michael, that you are a gay.”
For all its farce, the scene has a kind of accuracy, not only due to a longtime feud between the Culture Club frontman and Michael over the latter’s closeted homosexuality, but because of the oxymoron that was Britain’s pop scene at the time. 1982 was not only the year that Wham! found fame with their fun-loving brand of cheeky pop, it was also the year that Boy George pushed gender boundaries on Top of the Pops with his first TV performance of ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’, that Adam Ant became a straight sex symbol wearing a full face of make-up, when Soft Cell were flaunting (gay) S&M erotica on kids pop TV shows with singles from an album called Non Stop Erotic Cabaret, and electronica was morphing into super-camp New Romance with the appearance of The Human League and their androgynous lead singer, Phil Oakey.
1982 was the year that ushered in the gayest decade in pop history, during which nobody in the music business (other than Bronski Beat) dared utter the word, ‘gay’. Boy George made his infamous ‘cup of tea’ statement, effectively casting himself as a cuddly doll that America could love, while George Michael constantly flaunted girls on his arm, both in videos and real life, helping sell Wham! as a band that not only teenage girls could swoon over, but heterosexual boys could get down with too. Meanwhile straight guys began dragging up as gay in an effort to get a rung on the charts, and gender-bending became par for the course on Top of the Pops and a growing plethora of music-related kids shows.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Decade Of Pop
The ’80s were the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ decade of pop, when stars messed about with gender and sexuality norms in a way that excluded no one. “They acted out fantasies on behalf of their audience, but it was unthreatening, in the realm of make-believe rather than the truth of their sexuality,” according to Martin Aston, author of Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out.
Yet, as veteran British gay campaigner Peter Tatchell wrote, the 1980s were also “a period of intensified homophobia, sanctioned from the top echelons of society: the government, church, police and tabloids.” Under Margaret Thatcher, anti-gay feeling was stirred up and exploited by the Conservatives to win an election. Arrests of gay men for public indecency soared, with the Chief Constable of Manchester, James Anderton, describing gay people as “swirling around in a cesspit of their own making.” And on top of this, the burgeoning Aids pandemic was demonised as the ‘gay plague’.
1982 was also the year that the term ‘outing’ came into parlance, after in an issue of Harper’s, Taylor Branch predicted that “outage” would become a political tactic in which the closeted would find themselves trapped in a crossfire, and in closely following years the Aids pandemic led to the outing of several major entertainers, including Rock Hudson. In the midst of this, the pop world in the UK, and to a lesser extent the US, became a visible contradiction. While it was cool to behave as if you might be gay, if you were actually gay and it became known, everything pointed towards career suicide.
Peter Tatchell first met George Michael in 1980, two years before Wham! hit the big time, at a gay disco above a pub in central London, and writing in The Independent the day after Michael’s death, added that during the Wham! days the pop star was a regular at Bolt, a gay club in Haringey. “Some of us wondered whether going to Bolts was a manifestation of an unconscious wish to get outed by the press so he’d be forced to stop leading a secretive double life, with all the stresses it entailed,” Tatchell wrote. This unconscious wish came true in 1998 when George Michael suffered the most conspicuous outing ever after being busted for masturbating in front of a plain clothes cop in a Beverly Hills public toilet, but in between was almost a decade and a half of hiding in plain sight.
Vilified By Gay Press
He might have become a celebrated icon for the LGBT community after he turned his cottaging on its head with the release of the video for ‘Outside’, which sent up his arrest, describing his love of gay sex and cruising as “human nature”, but in the years before he was outed, George Michael was generally vilified by the gay press, which was of the same mind as his 1980s nemesis. In 2005, Boy George said: “People saw me as the benchmark gay man while George was passing himself off as a straight stud. In fact, he was loitering in public loos like some pre-war homosexual. It’s one thing to keep quiet. It’s another to pretend you’re someone you’re not.”
This perceived pretence was a bone of contention with the British gay press, which was heavily politicised in the Thatcher era. No one overtly said George Michael was gay, but it was constantly posed that if he was gay and wasn’t coming out, he was doing the beleaguered gay community a disservice.
The question remains that if George Michael hadn’t been outed (whether he subconsciously gave himself up or not), would he ever have come out? One way or the other, in the wake of an arrest that would have extinguished most careers, Michael triumphed by being unapologetically candid about his sexuality in a series of high-profile television interviews. It was a moment of redefinition that was expertly handled by a man who despite his previous reticence to come out publicly, had always proven himself to be strategically astute, even in the Wham! days.
“My sexuality was not cut and dried,” he told CNN just days after his arrest. “I spent the first part of my career being accused of being gay even though I hadn’t had anything like a gay relationship… so I spent my years growing up being told what my sexuality was, which was kind of confusing.”
He gave two reasons for not coming out of his own volition once he did fully identify as gay. One was that his mother would worry too much because of Aids, and the other was that he refused to be dictated to by the press, who were constantly pushing his closet door. The truth is probably somewhere in between, for who could blame George Michael, pop idol with Wham! turned sex symbol with his solo career, for not being totally upfront about his homosexuality?
Ambitions for Global Fame
From the outset, he never made any bones about his ambitions for global fame. He was his own songwriter, producer, arranger, image-creator and tactician, and he aimed his first solo album, Faith, squarely at the Stateside market, employing a leather-clad rockstar image that modelled young American dudes, and title song that riffed on rockabilly. Faith won the Grammy for album of the year in 1989, spawned four No. 1’s on the Hot 100 and topped the Billboard 200 for 12 weeks. A young British solo artist wouldn’t reach that position again until Adele did 24 years later, followed by the openly gay Sam Smith in 2015.
In 1987, Faith would never have broken America if they thought for one moment that George Michael was a faggot, and once it did, he was caught in a trap of his own making. He wanted to capitalise on the huge success of Faith, he wanted to progress, he wanted to be taken seriously, and his sexuality, rooted in shame and oppression, must have felt like an Achilles’ heel.
He said he didn’t come out because he wanted control of his own life, rather than giving the press control, and when the press finally got their field day in 1998, he did the unforgivable by taking control of the moment and manipulating it to his own ends. ‘Outside’ may have been a huge hit but it was his last to make the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic, and from thereon in he was characterised as a drug-addicted sexaholic on a downward spiral, the tabloids gleefully reporting his every gaffe like cliffnotes to a downfall. In an interview with The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone in 2009 he said there were two paparazzi parked 24/7 outside his house by a certain tabloid newspaper, to catch him should he slip up.
Two years before his outing, Michael dedicated his third solo album, Older to Anselmo Feleppa, his partner in his late 20s who died from Aids-related illness in 1993 (and who is the subject of the song ‘Jesus to a Child’), but when asked about the speculation this received on an MTV special, he said, “I’ve got absolutely nothing to hide, I’ve got no fear of people speculating about my sexuality. If I was worried about that, I would have never attached myself so heavily to Aids projects.”
Post-coming out, George Michael not only further attached himself to Aids activism, he also became a vocal proponent of LGBT rights in general. But his true legacy is one that still sticks in the craw of the tabloid press, who beyond the tributes have been quick to publish salacious headlines like: “He Had 500 Lovers In Just Seven Years,” while hounding his partner Fadi Fawaz in a way that no heterosexual grieving partner would suffer.
Having been outed in a fashion that could have heaped more shame on his sexuality, George Michael did the unthinkable – he became a sex-positive gay celebrity. He told the world he had an open relationship, that he loved anonymous sex, that he loved sex with men.
“You only have to turn on the television to see the whole of British society being comforted by gay men who are so clearly gay and so obviously sexually unthreatening,” he told the Guardian’s Hattenstone in 2005. “Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable, and automatically my response to that is to say I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.” Or as he put it on Twitter: “I have never and will never apologise for my sex life! Gay sex is natural, gay sex is good!”
It’s a legacy we would do well to hang on to, given the desexualisation of gay men that’s had to be employed to advance our equal rights. In a world that’s still largely homophobic, despite certain socio-political and legal advances, George Michael’s position was a hard and thankless one to take, but in the aftermath of his life, maybe we can thank him for it and understand that owning the truth of our sexual lives is hugely important as we further assimillate ourselves into the mainstream.
Michael’s great, lifelong friend, the costume designer Kim Bowen put it best when she said she believes the tribulations he went through were a source of strength for many gay men and women.
“His coming out, which he did not plan and was not managed by any publicity machine, was a very painful thing for him,” she told The Guardian. “But the way he handled it, and the way he braved it, and the way he made it all right for them, empowered a generation of young men.”