in memoriam

George Michael Was the Gay Icon We Didn’t Know We Needed

George Michael
Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images

“I’d service the community
(But I already have you see!)
I never really said it before”

—“Outside,” George Michael

In 1998, George Michael was arrested for a “lewd act” in a public bathroom by an undercover cop, one of those lures set to catch gay men in flagrante. Immediately, he became the poster child of the public menace that was gay sex, with the LAPD vowing to step up their crackdowns on cottaging. (This was before Lawrence v. Texas, you must remember.) The press castigated him, writing that he had “humiliated” himself and should be “ashamed.” And though he apologized, Michael showed no remorse for the act itself. Instead, he gave an almost insouciant response: “I don’t feel ashamed and I don’t believe I should,” he told CNN in his official “coming out” interview after the arrest, adding as a joke, “I was going to say it has been a walk in the park but I don’t think that would work very well …”

Michael further embraced the incident later that year, when he released the single “Outside,” a disco anthem that celebrates cruising and flagrant, illicit public displays of affection. The single works as a statement of Michael’s own personal coming-out process: What was once veiled in subtext had been brought wide into the open. He was definitely gay, boys. The accompanying music video stars Michael, who turns the site of his supposed ignominy — a men’s restroom — into an all-out disco dance party. Dressed up like a lost member of the Village People, the singer celebrated gay sex, kink, and cruising all while flipping off the state. It’s a bold, radical, campy video that still feels remarkably defiant in today’s political environment.

“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,” Michael later said in a 2005 interview. “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.” After coming out, George Michael didn’t offer up a neutered, politically correct image of a gay man, but rather one who was by turns bawdy, brash, funny, and strikingly candid about gay sex. He spoke frankly about soliciting male sex workers, being in an open relationship, and cruising. The man who once told women “I Want Your Sex” was now doing the same for gay men. In a tweet that has since undergone a revival, he wrote, “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!” At a time when the mainstream associated gay sex with the AIDS crisis, Michael was finally a pop icon who exalted its joys. Here was a gay celebrity who loved to fuck.

In many ways, George Michael had come out years prior, if you knew where to look. Early on in his songwriting career, he often sang of love as something secretive and dangerous. In the balladic 1986 song “A Different Corner,” he sings, “I’m so scared of this love,” dedicating the song elliptically “to a memory” on the back sleeve. In his 1987 debut solo album Faith, lines like “But sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime” in “Father Figure,” and “Take me where their eyes can’t find us” in “Hard Day” take on a haunted quality. As with much of mainstream pop culture, you had to look past the feathered hair and tight jeans — or maybe directly at it — to see what Michael himself might not have been ready to articulate.

But with his second album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, it became clear that maintaining the persona of “George Michael” was starting to feel like a charade. The early iteration of Michael’s public persona had been hatched within the Thatcherite backdrop of the ‘80s and largely shaped by his Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley. It was this image of supreme sexual confidence — a heterosexual lothario — that gave him the recognition he craved, but also created a bind from which he couldn’t quite escape. He refused to do the same press melee for Prejudice that he did for Faith, declining to appear in the now-iconic music video for “Freedom! ’90,” instead having the Trinity — Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington — lip-sync in his stead while his leather jacket from “Faith” burst into flames.

“I was becoming absolutely massively popular as a heterosexual male,” Michael reflected much later on. “It hadn’t occurred to me, when I went solo, that I would get a whole new generation of 13-year-old girls [as fans] from ‘Faith’, but it happened. And in here … in here, I was gay.” The truth was hidden in plain sight in the lyrics themselves:

I think there’s something you should know.
I think it’s time I told you so.
There’s something deep inside of me.
There’s someone else I’ve got to be.

Michael said that his retreat from pop music — he wouldn’t release his third album, Older, until 1996 — had much to do with his desire to learn what it meant to be a gay man. Michael met his first love, fashion designer Anselmo Feleppa, in 1991 while performing onstage in Brazil. He says that he couldn’t go over to the part of the stage near where Feleppa was in the crowd, because it made him nervous to look at him. Six months into their relationship, Feleppa would learn that he was HIV-positive, and then in 1993, he died of a brain hemorrhage. Michael later wrote and dedicated the song “Jesus to a Child” for him, performing it at the Berlin Wall in what would become a kind of personal coming out for himself.

Some critics wondered why George Michael didn’t come out sooner. “I spent my years growing up, being told what my sexuality was really, you know. Which is kind of confusing,” he told CNN in 1998. “By the time I’d kind of worked out what it was and I’d stopped having relationships with women, I was just so indignant at the way I had been treated until then, I thought, well I’ll just hold onto this. They didn’t need to know what was going on and I didn’t need to tell them.” As is true for anyone, understanding your sexuality is a deeply personal process — something that doesn’t belong to anyone else. For George Michael it was something he needed to keep to himself, away from the women who lusted after him and the gay men who wanted him to come out (and also lusted after him). 1998 was an early time to come out in our contemporary history, and when Michael did, he wore the cultural stigma as a badge of honor. Michael may not have had the freedom he craved in his own life, but he certainly cleared the way for others.

George Michael Was the Gay Icon We Needed