Listening to George Michael’s lyrics were like therapy for me. I remember when 'Older' came out in 1996, it gave voice to my own closeted yearnings. ‘You Have Been Loved’ was a secret homage to his Brazilian lover Anselmo Feleppa who died from an HIV-related illness in 1993, although you could miss that if you weren't paying attention. I was hanging on every word. Closeted George was a master at placing an ambivalent pronoun that could fly under the radar. 'Fastlove' was loaded with subtle and not so subtle linguistic backflips: “Stupid Cupid keeps on calling me, And I see lovin’ in his eyes”. This ode to sexual adventure worked on another level too. Throughout it you hear a sample of a disco track with the haunting refrain “sending you forget me nots, to help you to remember, baby please forget me not I want you to remember." Only a gay man would understand why that resonates. The thrill of the chase, the dangers of promiscuity, the wild intoxication of anonymous sex is blended beautifully with that sad, melancholy ache that comes from being physically fulfilled while spiritually and emotionally there is still a void.
Of course George was yet to come out, and this track foreshadowed his toilet tango in Beverly Hills for which he was arrested in 1998. Careers have been sunk by a lot less than a lewd act, but George threw caution to the wind with 'Outside', the monster hit that became my own coming out anthem. In the video he deftly turned the judgement-laden narrative on its head. By transforming a men’s bathroom into a disco of policemen kissing, he challenged hypocrisy and created musical alchemy. What could have been his cue to crawl under a rock became a transcendent moment of glorious triumph. YAAS!
George was no angel, nor was he a stranger to cruising on Hampstead Heath, but he had the humility to poke fun at himself (see his cameo on Ricky Gervais’s Extras). That he had self destructive tendencies which got him into dicey situations is undeniable but you might do too if you had grown up in a culture that criminalises your basic instincts. As Alan Downs says in his book 'The Velvet Rage', “any person that grows up in an environment that is essentially invalidating struggles with shame.” And like too many gay men, George began to rely heavily on substances to numb the pain.
“Gay people are more than two and half times more likely to become alcohol or drug dependent, over two and half times more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression disorders,” Downs continues. Last year it was reported that George underwent three months of treatment near Zurich for depression. Not all gay men have depression or substance abuse problems. And you don't have to be gay to be an addict, but it helps. Throw global pop superstardom into the mix (Amy, Whitney, Michael Jackson et al) and you’re left with a volatile pressure cooker waiting to explode (or implode). Perhaps being caught with his pants down was exactly what George wanted to burn the house down. Trouble is when you light that match it’s not always easy to stop, especially when you have some faulty wiring that prohibits the ability to start or stop an activity in spite of destructive consequences.
My own coming out story ran concomitantly with and was facilitated by George’s. I still have all the press clippings. I wonder if there would be such a hoopla today? Back then, it was still considered acceptable to mock gay people in the media. Things have progressed but it’s interesting to observe how public toilets are still such a hot topic, albeit more for trans people. You don't hear too many stories of entrapment these days, which is essentially what happened. I had the honour of meeting him at Attitude’s 10 year anniversary party in 2004. He was with his ‘American angel’ Kenny at the time. Shortly after things started to go wrong. In 2006 he pleaded guilty for driving while unfit through drugs and in 2008 was cautioned for possession of class A drugs including crack cocaine. In 2010 he crashed his Range Rover into a shop in North London and again admitted to driving under the influence of drugs. Clearly George did not have his shit together, but to say that this was due to his fading career is incorrect . His “25 Live” tour (2006-8) grossed more than $200 million. Anyone who battles with mental illness or addiction knows that it’s an inside job; no amount of success is going to quell the demons, if anything it will exacerbate them.
George is part of a generation of gay men that lived through an awful storm. After a decade of death and shame he got to see gay marriage being legalised which is awesome, but it doesn't undo all those years plagued by worry, fear, heartache and pain. George crafted the soundtrack to our lives. Through his music he allowed us to find our common humanity: on 'Outside' he reminds us that “there’s nothing here but flesh and bone.” I stand on the shoulders of men like George who fought my battles for me. But I remain vigilant: shame, fear, and prejudice have not vanished. In an era when basic battles for legal recognition have been won, more insidious forms of homophobia are still very much alive. Maybe he flew a little too close to the sun, but in doing so he saved me from living a lie. Growing up gay is a lonely experience, or at least it was in the 90s. Thank you George for making me feel less alone. I hope you're happy up there in gay heaven. You brushed my eyes with angel's wings.