Last night, after word spread that pop star George Michael died at the age of 53, I sent out several tweets honoring the man who meant a lot to me as a queer young man who came out in the late ‘90s. My first tweet instructed those unfamiliar with Michael (and the brilliance of what he created) to seek out his music. This was my second tweet:
I was referencing Michael’s well-publicized history with cruising for sex in public places (he was arrested by an undercover policeman in a Beverly Hills men’s room in 1998 and again 10 years later in London). While I was being cheeky in a way that I thought he would appreciate in the big Wembley Stadium in the sky, I also meant it. It was my way of paying tribute to how open, outspoken and unapologetic he was about who he was (once he came out in 1998), his sexuality and looking for gay sex in what could be referred to as non-traditional locales.
But shit soon hit the fan. People who thought I was being “disrespectful” and “tacky” and “tasteless” flooded my Twitter mentions. A few people commented “too soon.” Others couldn’t believe that this was the only aspect of his life that I had chosen to concentrate on (which means they obviously didn’t read my aforementioned tweet). How dare I! One person called me “the 2016 of people” (which is actually kind of amazing) and another promised to “piss on my grave” when I died (I mean… don’t threaten my corpse with a good time, right?).
I tried to explain that as a queer, sex-positive man, this part of Michael’s life ― these moments of queer sexuality and his sex life that were made very public ― helped to reorganize and shape how I saw and embraced my own sexuality, which was nothing short of a miracle considering the homophobic and sex-negative culture we live in.
My tweet wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t rude or disrespectful. If you read it that way you’re implying that gay sex ― public or otherwise ― is shameful. I don’t and neither did Michael.
In fact, after the pop star was caught in 1998, he turned the incident into a celebratory song (accompanied by a splendidly self-conscious video featuring a public restroom that turns into a disco and Michael dressed as a cop) about the joys of having sex outside:
After his arrest in a public toilet on a drug-related charge in 2008, he opened up to The Guardian about his love of cruising saying, “the handful of times a year it’s bloody warm enough, I’ll do it.” He added, “It’s a much nicer place to get some quick and honest sex than standing in a bar, E’d off your tits shouting at somebody and hoping they want the same thing as you do in bed.”
No shame. No embarrassment. No mincing of words. Just the truth about what he liked and how he liked it.
In 2011, he playfully quoted his 1987 hit “I Want Your Sex” to tweet a similar message:
So why all of the frantic pearl clutching? Why the attempts to bleach this part of his life from his legacy? Because we like our heroes wearing halos and because gay sex ― public or otherwise ― is still an absolutely terrifying concept for too many people (including some who may support queer rights). It’s seen as disgusting. It’s seen as unnatural. It’s seen as contributing to the downfall of modern civilization. In fact, William Pryor, a man that Donald Trump is considering as a nominee for the United States Supreme Court, believes that consensual gay sex should be illegal ― even in the privacy of one’s own home.
But let’s not forget that the sex acts that gay men engage in aren’t secret satanic practices. It’s the exact same kind of sex that most non-queer people have, just with a different distribution of equipment (and if anyone wants to claim that non-queer people don’t also enjoy blow jobs or butt sex, I’m going to laugh you right off of this planet).
Even scarier and sadder to me than the non-queer people who have a problem with gay sex are the queer people who are up in arms about my tweet. I’ve encountered folks like them before and in some ways, I understand their trepidation and their fear. The general idea is that if we don’t “behave” ourselves ― especially if people like Michael (who represent us in a world where queers are all too often invisible, ignored and/or vilified) don’t ― and quietly assimilate into mainstream society, we won’t be able to keep the rights that we have (and gain more). And so, instead of speaking frankly and honestly about sex ― that tireless boogeyman that has mesmerized and terrorized our society for centuries ― we should just shut up, get married, have kids and stop causing trouble.
But we can’t do that. Our queer fore-parents worked too hard, and too many died, for us to walk away from the dream of sexual liberation for all of us. That means we must not buy into a broken system that is simultaneously obsessed with and panic-stricken by all things sex. It means we must not accept the sexual status quo that all-too-often results in fake piety in the streets and discreet sleaze in the sheets. It means we must not pretend that Michael never had or loved gay sex. Let’s not sanitize him just because it would make it easier for some of us to eulogize him or love him or play his music for our children or our grandparents.
Michael himself wouldn’t want that. He’d hate it. Consider what he told The Guardian in 2005:
“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. 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.”
And before anyone says that I’m claiming public restrooms should become bathhouses or that we should all be pumping our neighbors in the park, I’m not. While I constantly try to question, unpack and challenge why our society feels the way it does about sex and what it deems is OK and what isn’t, I understand that there are currently laws against these activities and I understand why they exist. I’m talking about pushing back against the shame and hysteria that accompanies any kind of discussion of a gay person’s sex life and striving to not view sex or sexuality ― queer or otherwise ― as bad things.
I also want to briefly acknowledge Michael’s long struggle with substance abuse and how it may or may not have played into his sexual appetites and activities. Gay men, drugs and sex have an intimate and complicated history and I don’t want to ignore any of that. But I also refuse to write off his sex positivity or his candor about it as merely a result or symptom of his experiences with drugs.
So, yes, George Michael was an incredible singer and a beautiful songwriter but he was also a gay man who wasn’t ashamed of his sexuality and who loved sex. I want to honor all parts of his life ― the musical and the sexual, the triumphs and the setbacks ― and I refuse to shy away from any of it out of a misguided and incomplete attempt to pay “respect” to his life or his death. Ultimately, the best way I know how to honor him is to talk about who he really was, what he really did and how it changed my life ― and that means all of it, including his hunting for dick in the men’s room.
You’ll be sorely missed, George. Thanks for everything you did ― all of it ― and I hope the men in heaven are as hot as you were and that you’ve found yourself a nice fluffy cloud where you’re already getting into all of the best kinds of trouble.