Self-abasement in exchange for basic tolerance is the standard get out of jail card for LGBT people. George Michael was having none of it.
I was about 13 years old when it happened. I felt like I was witnessing it in slow motion. A beloved superstar called George Michael was entrapped, outed and hauled to the mucky tabloid stocks for what I can only describe as a minor sexual misdemeanour. A “lewd act” which not only pales in comparison to the things that many straight icons get up to with little to no judgment, but was also, of course, conflated endlessly with his sexual orientation. His outing and his “lewd act” were treated as one and the same. I was horrified, anxious, angry, as I listened to my friends and classmates snigger endlessly about George Michael and toilets and how he was a fag and ha ha ha isn’t it hilarious and disgusting, let’s all pour over the delicious details and be sickened with delight. For a long time, my stomach churned whenever his name was mentioned.
Sometimes I would weakly laugh along, occasionally speaking up, usually not speaking up, terrified at the constant, snagging, sickening weight in my gut caused by the knowledge that one day, in the future, maybe not far from now, I would have to have The Conversation with people. That conversation. The one where you Tell People That Thing about yourself, that thing that you work so hard to hide. Not only was I fearful but I felt like such a cowardly little shit because I didn’t say much in his defence at the time. He was such a kind-hearted, generous-spirited person, always thinking about his fans and always concerned about the impact this was all having on young LGBT people. I was so deeply invested in delaying The Conversation Where You Tell People That Thing About Yourself, that I could never quite face it.
And then. And then. I saw how he handled it. I saw him respond not with shame, not with apologetic respectability, but with a music video for Outside that went so full-scale, off the charts, fantastically gay you couldn’t possibly imagine he was doing anything other than celebrating himself and sticking up two fingers to people who had a problem with the whole thing. I mean, I’m talking about dressing-up-as-a-cop-in-leather-gloves-gay, public-toilets-turning-into-discos-gay; a celebration of queer, sexy joy in all its glory.
I felt like that song and video made the perfect smack in the face for all those homophobes I’d heard trying to tear him down. And it didn’t matter if they didn’t get it, because actually, it wasn’t for them at all; it was for me. I felt like George Michael was going up to all those kids who were like “ha ha you’re GAY” as if it’s the worst insult in the world, and laughing in their faces: “You think this is gay? MATE. You’ve seen nothing. You haven’t lived. I am not even being gay right now. You’ve seen nothing. Damn right I’m gay. I’m gayer than gay. Oh babe, you think it’s an insult? Look how awesome being gay is!” Which is what I always longed to say but never did.
I secretly adored this song. Not only the song itself but everything it meant to me. I loved the idea of making a song like that so much it hurt. This song that one of my friends told me I was not allowed to buy when she was with me because it was “so gay.” This song that caused one friend to keep pretending to be sick whenever it came on because “it’s so gay.” (It didn’t escape me that the same people who had mocked George Michael for being in the closet were now mocking him for making a song that was “too gay.”)
But the most beautiful thing for me was the evening I sat in my family living room to watch George Michael’s interview with Michael Parkinson. I saw that this man was still someone my family admired, someone they wanted to watch on TV, a man whose music they still listened to, a man they thought was brave and cool and human – and he was putting into words things I had not being able to spell out very well even to myself; things I had timidly attempted to scribble about in my diary, perhaps, but that was pretty much it.
And actually, whenever I truly want to explain my sexuality, even to this day, I often still refer back to the way George Michael put it in this brilliant interview. It’s hard to find better words than this for how I feel. I never felt as if I entirely fit any of the labels, the way I’d understood them, the way straight people had defined them to me. George Michael summed up what, for him, made the distinction between being bisexual and gay so neatly, with such clarity, yet without removing the complexities of human experience – or, importantly, without trying to speak for anybody but himself – that even then, with no meaningful romantic experiences to speak of, I stopped dead. I thought my heart might stop with excitement. I forgot all about what other people might call me, and, perhaps for the first time, I began to think about what I might actually want to call myself. Even at 13 this distinction spoke to me so poignantly. This is what he said:
“No, I wasn’t confused [about my sexuality]. I thought I was bisexual. When I could take it or leave it from either side of the fence, I just thought I was bisexual. The day I knew I was gay was the day I fell in love with a man. I thought it was about who you can get it up for. I realise now that it’s not about you get it up for, but about who you can get it up for – and love. So now I don’t think I’m bisexual; I am gay.”
I am sure this kind of thing has been said by countless others, of course. But I had never heard anything like it before. I had certainly never heard it from anyone who was such an enormous star. I watched the interview again after George Michael died and realised I still love, love, love everything about this.
I love that he isn’t dismissing or minimising bisexuality. Unlike so many straight or gay people for whom “feeling bisexual” was a transition phase, he’s acknowledging that what he feels is not bisexuality, and so, by logical extension, that bisexuality is real and does exist. Bisexuality is not being “confused.” Come to think of it, this might be the first time I’d heard anyone talk not only about being gay, but about bisexuality with any measure of respect, any measure of acknowledgement that it is, in fact, real.
I love that he doesn’t say being a lesbian or being gay means you automatically have no desire or curiosity or hot one night stands or enjoyable kisses with people of the opposite sex. Its funny, because if a woman says she enjoys casual fun with women but would only have a relationship with a man, the assumption is that she’s heterosexual, even if she herself says she’s bisexual. Yet if you are gay, people find it much easier to process it if you say you have never, ever so much as looked at someone of the opposite sex.
Yet it’s well-known that for many people, including straight people, there’s a world of difference between being into someone for Netflix and chill, and actually liking that person in a meaningful way. Far before falling in love comes into it, there are some people where it’s just not about anything deep, and it never will be, and that’s fine as long as you both know it. Casual fun with the opposite sex doesn’t necessarily make you straight – or even bisexual. We are not supposed to say this. But he did.
And I love the truthfulness and authenticity of his answers to these questions all the more for the fact that at this time, he was trying to rescue his image from a very public trashing. He could have thrown bisexuals, promiscuous people, polyamorous people, and kinky people under the bus to save himself and play the respectability and hypocrisy game that the media loves. He didn’t.
I love the conviction with which he rejects the familiar old self-flagellating narrative he gets offered up by Parkinson time and time again as a lifeline throughout that interview. Self-abasement in exchange for basic tolerance is the standard get out of jail card for a lot of LGBT people in the public eye. It is a tempting rope to grab. George Michael was having none of it.
I love that he talks about getting it up and falling in love in the same sentence. In 1998, as far as I could see, we were supposed to be either entirely sexless, or degenerate animals. We could not be whole. Bollocks to that, George Michael seemed to be saying. We have sex and we fall in love and guess what, it’s not always with the same people. But sometimes it is with the same people. Because we are whole.
Sexuality is so personal. It would be amazing if any of these labels entirely fit any of us. Yet even at 13, George Michael’s definition, as uniquely personal as it was, touched upon some level of truth for me. I had never heard anyone express anything so honest about queerness. Clumsily, chaotically, I listened to this interview, heart racing, and thought: wow, yes, that’s it, that’s how I feel, that’s how you tell people. Maybe I can have The Conversation. Maybe it will be okay.
It was largely because of George Michael that I realised there are different ways of loving and having relationships and having sex. You don’t have to pretend that arbitrary boxes fit your reality when it’s obvious to anyone with the most basic understanding of human interactions that the boxes are painfully small for the task.
George Michael’s coming out was my earliest memory of hearing someone seriously suggest that perhaps it was the boxes that were wrong, not me.
It was like someone was reassuring me: you’re allowed to exist. If your existence is too confusing for people, they need to change their silly, pointless, self-imposed boxes. You don’t need to not exist. The boxes need to not exist. You are not wrong for existing. Your existence is not a problem to be solved. Maybe one day you, and others around you, will even celebrate it. Not tolerate. Celebrate.
Hearing that George Michael has died, seeing the outpouring of love for him (including the hypocritical tabloid press that hounded him), I’m flashing back to George Michael’s coming out, his Parkinson interview and the fabulous self-acceptance of Outside. I want to celebrate his life and his music. The truth is, I feel slightly sick. Because I am also flashing back, vividly, to how all-consuming the terror was of being 13 years old and thinking that my very existence was an anomaly, an error, a bug in the system. A society that teaches a 13 year old that their existence is a problem to solve is abominably cruel, however unintentionally or subliminally it’s done. If you tell a child repeatedly that they should not, by rights, exist, what do you think they will do? It is not melodramatic to say that hearing these things articulated saves lives.
I want to feel like that’s all in the past. I want to end my blog by saying how far we have all come, and how wonderful it is. I can’t make myself feel this. We live in a world now where the most powerful person in the world, the American President Elect, does indeed view entire groups of people as a problem to be solved, and is not shy about saying so. That is scary. That is how true horrors happen.
The people who minimise the importance of things like famous people coming out and nullifying some of that terror are usually people who have not grown up believing their own existence is seen by others (perhaps even by their own loved ones) as a problem to be corrected. They have never sat in a room where respected people debate their right to exist, or debate what conditions should be attached to their right to exist. They do not know the fear that never quite dies; the fear that the people who think you are a problem to solve will one day hold serious power over your life.
I used to be in awe of the cognitive dissonance these people were capable of. You know who I mean. The people can moan on Monday about political correctness and cheer on “locker room talk” from the President Elect, but by Tuesday they are attacking a musician for being a poor role model or for having too much sex. People who smear and humiliate anyone queer who is open about their sexuality, but also criticise people for staying “in the closet”. They attack LGBT people for “flaunting” their love in public or wanting to get married but also for being dirty disgusting queers who use public toilets or night time parks or pay sex workers in secret.
These are also, amusingly, often the same people who pounce on any deviation from our boxes as evidence of dishonesty (“You said you were a lesbian but you kissed this man!”) then have sneering tantrums when we make bigger boxes (“Why are there so many letters in LGBTQIA, why can’t it just be gay and lesbian, yawn”).
I used to be in awe of their cognitive dissonance but I’m not anymore. If 2016 has convinced me of one thing, it’s that these people don’t even believe that they believe any of this. They couldn’t possibly mean it all. The contradictions are too great, too ridiculous. And many of the people spewing it all out are too well-informed, too clever with logic, too self-aware to believe such directly contradictory things. What they are is homophobic, and what they want is for people like me to go away.
In 1998, I sat in my bedroom, wondering if I would ever be able to be happy, if I would ever get to have a romantic relationship with a woman, and if so, if I could do it without everybody finding out. I wondered what was the worst thing that could happen if I just never told anybody, ever. And I wondered if I would dare to buy Outside on cassette. What would the salesperson in the shop think of me? Would I hide it when my friend came round, or would I show her it, defiantly? Perhaps, even if I didn’t buy it, I would just admit, quietly, that I liked the song. Perhaps I would admit to myself why it made my heart leap every time it came on the radio. (I never did buy it. I picked it up in the shop and turned it over several times in my hands. I put it back. I pretended I didn’t like the song.)
As I go into 2017, decades later, I am living with my wonderful girlfriend who makes my heart sing every day, who my family members welcome into their lives with open arms. And I feel so much gratitude to people like George Michael, whose battle with the media vultures helped me, and thousands of others like me, know that we are allowed to exist, that we are not an anomaly, that we are not a problem that needs correcting. I never write to celebrities – they get so many letters, what would mine matter? – but I have often thought of writing to George Michael. I never did. Just like I never bought the Outside cassette. In 1998 I wanted to blast that damn song from the rooftops. Maybe this weekend I will. Let’s go outside. In the sunshine. I would like to be playing it as a victory anthem. But for now, a celebration will do.