I think sometimes that George Michael was probably the first gay person my mother had ever known. Not that she knew him personally, of course, because she obviously didn’t. But the Welsh Valleys can be a solitary place, and back in those days, you were as likely to see someone step out of the closet openly as you were miners sending Christmas cards to Maggie Thatcher.
But George Michael was George Michael, and, even though I’ve been told it was my aunt who was the bigger Wham! fan, you felt the presence of his joyous pop hits even in South Wales. Of course, Michael was initially fearlessly private with his sexuality. Despite coming out to select friends and family as bisexual at 19, he would keep this a secret, ultimately the victim of a somewhat forced coming out ‘scandal’ in the late 90s when he was arrested in L.A for lewd acts of public indecency. I can’t ever remember having a specific conversation about George Michael with my mother, but I can remember her saying once that it was shock when he did eventually come out because ‘he didn’t look gay.’
This stuck in my mind for a long time, and it was one of the first things that came to mind after I’d heard that Michael had died. The way we code our understanding of sexuality, especially those of older generations, is explicitly through appearance. And, for all intents and purposes, at the height of his commercial powers, George Michael did not look gay. That speaks more about the concepts and preconceptions about sexuality at the time – if you didn’t look and act like a camp queen, then maybe all bets were off – than it does about anything else, but just because he wasn’t explicitly out per se at the time, that doesn’t mean that George Michael’s sexuality didn’t trickle into art, whether he realised it at the time or not.
Because, and let’s not forget it, for a time George Michael was just about as famous as you could get. His first album, Faith, shot him into superstardom, of the like very rarely seen. He was a pop culture behemoth, on the same par as Madonna and Prince, with just as many number one singles to boot. This was because not only was Faith a marvellous album, but it was filled to the brim with a sexual soul and a deep emotional honesty that can be summed up by one simple phrase from the titular track; ‘I gotta have faith.’ From the sexual yearning of the title track and lead single ‘I Want Your Sex’ to the more demure gospel-tinged ‘Father Figure,’ Faith is an album about lust, love and longing that, looking back with hindsight, seems impossible to separate from Michael’s own sexual desire. Even his best known song, ‘Careless Whisper,’ seems tinged with sadness now, more so than before. It was the first song I listened to after Michael’s passing, and as that saxophone played off into the distance. into the darkness, I realised that this was a song about sexuality, maybe about Michael’s initial struggle to conceal it, and how that hurt people around him, people that he loved and maybe couldn’t love as fully as he would have liked. ‘We could have been so good together / we could have lived this dance forever,’ this lyric seems so potent, so loaded now that I don’t think I’ll ever listen to this song – or any from Michael in this early period – the same ever again.
George Michael was fearless in his honesty about his sexuality in the years after his somewhat forced public coming out at the hands of the press. It’s sobering and inspirational to see a man so proud about his sexuality in a time when society was less accepting towards the LGBT community, and the stigma of HIV/AIDS was still rampant. George Michael wasn’tt completely responsible for changing public attitudes towards sexuality, but it was certainly a huge turning point in normalising gay popular culture figures, something that we still seem to struggle with now.
My mother was quiet when George Michael died, almost as if she was thinking, daring not to grieve, perhaps, for someone she had never known. I waned to say something, but hesitated. We never truly know how much one person means to someone else, and I’ll never know if maybe Michael was the figure that helped adapt my mother’s view of my own sexuality, but it’s something that I like to believe. I just laid back in bed at that moment, and played ‘Careless Whisper’ one last time, letting that saxophone send me off into the darkness for one last time.
Words by George Griffiths