Nearly 20 years ago, the late George Michael released “Outside,” an act of self-deprecation and defiance in response to his arrest earlier that year in a public restroom, in Beverly Hills’ Will Rogers Park. Michael, then 34, was arrested by a plainclothes officer who "observed Mr. Michael engaged in a lewd act." The misdemeanor charge for cruising led the British pop star to formally declare what had long been suspected: He was gay.
Given the stigmas associated with homosexuality at the time, meeker men might have, understandably, slunk away from the spotlight. Instead, Michael did what he did best: made a pop song. One that winked at his controversy and the prejudices fueling it. In the lyrics of the song, Michael references his arrest for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer, singing: “And yes I've been bad/Doctor, won't you do with me what you can/You see I think about it all the time/I'd service the community/But I already have, you see!”
In the video, he dresses up like a cop and dances in a restroom. The message is clear: no one gets to shame George Michael for being George Michael.
That same year, Michael confirmed that he was gay in an April 1998 interview with CNN.
Much has changed since then. We have marriage equality in America (and the UK); there are hate crime laws on the books; there is somewhat wider representation for the gay community in media, in public office, and other areas of everyday life. And yet, Michael is still very much in a league of his own when it comes to how he owned his sexuality. Not just in terms of his identity, but with respect to his urges, his appetite, and his human right to pleasure.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2005, Michael accurately described the state of gay men in media: "You only have to turn on the television to see the whole of British society being comforted by gay men who are clearly gay and so obviously sexually unthreatening. 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 you can't deal with that, you can't deal with it."
Michael may as well have been describing American society. This country is still fearful of gay sexuality, afraid of the sexual needs and desires of gay men and women. If that weren't the case, overt displays of sexuality—specifically between men—would be far more commonplace in mass media. They wouldn't be causes for alarm.
Marriage equality gradually became acceptable to the majority of Americans because it was homosexuality viewed through the lens of heteronormativity; marriage equality was safe, grounded in a proper long-standing tradition. Michael was never proper. He was never safe. He was sex in public places; he was open relationships; he was whatever he wanted to be.
It’s much harder to sell non-heterosexual people to the pearl-clutching masses in that light. Even in the wake of the horrific shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, both allies and many members of the LGBTQ community themselves championed the adage “love is love.”
As I wrote earlier this year about the tragedy: “We need to be able to consider same-sex identities outside of just romance. Sometimes it's not about love; sometimes people just want to fuck. Straight people should understand this. We are no different than you all in that regard.”
When it comes to equality, there is acceptance and tolerance. All too often people falsely conflate the two. Equality isn’t just my right to marry, it’s the freedom to live however I choose without stigmatization.
Like many thinking about Michael’s legacy, I first turned to his music. I reflected on the subtly and soulfulness of songs like “Everything She Wants.” I remember hearing his Aretha Franklin duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” on the “grown folks” radio station. I recall hearing songs like "Faith" and “I Want Your Sex” as a kid, but not truly getting them until I became an adult.
And it's hard to avoid the sad irony that the man behind the holiday breakup classic “Last Christmas” died on Christmas Day. But when I think about George Michael the man, his impact reaches well beyond those early, polished Wham hits, like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Careless Whisper.” As a child born in the 1980s, there were not many gay men to look to growing up. I have an uncle who died of AIDS. I saw too many caricatures on television. I vaguely knew of Elton John, but more so for “Benny and the Jets” and a random music video with RuPaul, than anything else. By 1998, I was still young, but very much more aware of what gay meant as I tried to fight off a natural attraction to boys. George Michael is the only person I can think of back then who was utterly adamant about who he was. He’s actually still the only major entertainer I think of that way, now.
In 2011, Michael tweeted: “I HAVE NEVER AND WILL NEVER APOLOGISE FOR MY SEX LIFE ! GAY SEX IS NATURAL, GAY SEX IS GOOD! NOT EVERYBODY DOES IT, BUT.....HA HA!”
So many still want gay men to be ashamed of who they are. They’d rather that we desexualize ourselves and center heteronormative ideals about polite behavior for easier public consumption. But not all of us care to be widely accepted, nor do we want to pour cold water over ourselves to conform to other folks’ norms. We want to live. That’s something George Michael did, and while we have a long ways to still go, at least we know through men like him what genuine freedom in the public eye can look like.