Legendary pop music icon, gay rights activist, and great talent George Michael died in his home on Christmas Day. The star succumbed to heart failure, and millions of hearts were consequently broken – mine among them. Numerous news outlets have already done their due diligence in reporting the facts about Michael’s death, as well as his life and career. I won’t repeat them here. I’d rather share how this bold singer/songwriter impacted lives, starting with my own.
I first discovered George Michael when he released Faith in 1987, shortly after parting ways with Wham!. I remember listening to the tape (yes, kids, TAPE) on my pink cassette tape player/radio for hours until my mom finally heard I Want Your Sex and took it away. The lyrics were “not nice” she and my dad agreed. I eventually snuck another copy, and watched the accompanying Faith music videos on VH1. I knew a lot of boys and girls had crushes on him, and that he was often referred to as a “sex symbol.” He certainly had a lot of sexy lyrics, and although I didn’t share in the gushing that had overcome my friends, I admired his style. What made me uncomfortable, though, were the remarks I would overhear. These words, in the middle of the AIDS crisis, were more harmful than I could know at the time. “You know, he’s a homo” an older kid would say, and “he’s cute, too bad he’s” *insert limp wrist gesture. They discussed the significance of in which ear he wore his cross earring, because in those days, a right pierced ear meant flaming homosexual. “Right ear queer” was a thing, and queer was by no means a cool new reclaimed word; it was a slur. Then there were the adults who I overheard questioning his HIV status. I shrugged off their comments because I didn’t understand what they really meant, but they bothered me precisely for that reason.
In 1990, Listen Without Prejudice revealed a more mature George Michael, and the unforgettable track Freedom 90! with lyrics that spoke of his emancipation from the pop music industry. But they stirred up some feelings about identity in general, for me anyway.
We didn’t hear from him for a while after that album because of his long contract dispute with Sony, and when he did make headlines it was not with a new hit song. By the time he was arrested in 1998 for that very infamous sex act in a men’s restroom in Beverly Hills, I had moved on to female pop singer crushes. But I wasn’t out of the closet, and neither was he, at least not officially. In the 90’s, coming out could ruin your career, and was overall considered a huge risk (just ask Ellen DeGeneres). Yet, he did it. I remember when he went on CNN and told the world he was gay, even when it meant losing fans, even though there were no laws back then to protect gay people from hate crimes. Even when being gay was immediately associated with having HIV. His words struck something deep within me when he confessed in the interview:
His words resonated so strongly because I had, throughout high school, been frequently accused of being a lesbian, although I too had not yet experienced a lesbian relationship. I thought for a long time about what he said, and I knew that we were somehow the same. I just didn’t know exactly how yet.
Following that CNN interview, Michael appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and made yet another very bold move. When Ms. Winfrey questioned him about whether he was worried he’d be accepted by his fans as a gay artist, the singer had the perfect response. “I’m not worried about it…I want to be totally straight-forward here. I’m not really interested in selling records to people who are homophobic.” The crowd cheered him, and at home, I clapped too. And in that moment, George Michael went from just being a cool pop star who made music I loved, to being a significant role model. He was 34 years old, and had already lost a great love to the AIDS epidemic, had lost his mother, and now risked losing his career. Even so, he was not broken. He pivoted the entire scandal of his arrest into a satire in the music video for Outside, and then came out and told the world he was a proud gay man. I had never seen or heard of anyone else like him. Most of us hadn’t, and I wonder who else was like me, young and at home watching, in awe of it all. It felt like the world had shifted, and something exciting was happening, even though I still didn’t fully grasp its enormity.
“I never had a moral problem with being gay,” Michael told The Advocate in a 1999 interview. “I thought I had fallen in love with a woman a couple of times. Then I fell in love with a man, and realized that none of those things had been love.” He spoke candidly about hiding the fact he was gay because of worries over what effect it might have on his mother. I could certainly relate. I was deep inside my own closet at the time, and smitten with a girl at school who was of course straight, and who of course broke my young heart. I remember playing Kissing a Fool over and over in my room, relating to these lyrics:
We all have our own personal heroes and heroines who helped us get through hard emotional times. When they leave this world, it’s as though a part of you goes with them. While it may seem a bit overly sentimental, I wish I had been given the chance to thank this man not just for what he gave to the world, but also for his role in helping me to eventually find my way.
George Michael worked for gay rights throughout the 2000’s, alongside Elton John and other famous activists. But what made the difference in my life back then, and what I believe affected many young gay people’s lives who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, was simply having his voice. It was extraordinarily powerful to watch him stand up for himself, and see that being gay didn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it was through his spoken words, sometimes through his songs, but he touched us. Yes, he was generous, and yes he donated his time and money, but the greatest thing he did for me, quite simply, was to live. To write songs that kept me company when I felt so very alone. To be brave enough to come out. To succeed and to be fearless in an often cruel world. To truly be free. I’ll miss knowing he’s out there, somewhere, living his life bravely. But he leaves behind something that can never die.