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George Michael bravely fought pop culture's sterilization of queerness

George Michael during the Faith World Tour in 1988

George Michael during the Faith World Tour in 1988 Wikipedia Commons

We lost him. It’s been a tough year for queer iconography in general, and on Christmas Day, we lost George Michael. He was 53. 

Since his death, I've seen a lot of stories circulate about the generosity and heart that Michael showed in his daily life. The English pop star seemed to be an infinite fountain of emotional wealth and financial benevolence (The Guardian compiled an excellent list here). It's also crucial to remember that, as an artist, he refused to bend to the demands of record labels and did backing instruments on his own tracks.

Michael was generous, humble, and talented -- a rare combination at the incredible level of superstardom he achieved in the '80s and '90s.

However, as we remember the former Wham! singer, we should not forget that he was a sexual revolutionary in an era when denigrating freedom of expression, especially queerness, was nearly a national pastime.

I was hesitant to eulogize George Michael as a beacon of queer rights, simply because of the ways in which he was lambasted in the past for his actions and frankness. But then I realized that his spurring of that backlash is exactly the reason why he's a revolutionary, and how his determination to combat fear and hatred with sex and passion helped profoundly re-shape popular culture. 

That magic was present during Michael's public-sex scandal, one he refused to spin or hide from. Following his arrest in 1998, it would have been understandable for him to cower in a corner. Instead, Michael brought that old improv adage ("yes, and") to his own fabulous realm of celebrity. Yes, I am gay, and ...?

At the time, this was a potentially career-destroying announcement. Not just the revealing of his sexuality, but the way it burst into the public consciousness via handcuffs. He was a homo and a criminal. But when he spoke to the press immediately afterward, it was with the nonchalance as if he were stating what he ate for breakfast, Bible Belt CD buyers be damned. 

Michael's career suffered for it; his post-arrest album,1999's Songs from the Last Century, was the lowest-charting of his career. A few years later, on his Oprah appearance in 2004, he took an even firmer stance: "I am not really interested in selling records to people who are homophobic. I don't need the approval of people who don't approve of me."

Michael's sexuality pours through his entire discography. Even the songs released prior to his outing were coded with queer sexuality, if you know where to look.

The imagery of the "Freedom! 90" music video feels ever-more relevant these days -- an unending lineup of supermodels stripping themselves of their own shallow edifice, exposing their vulnerability for the world to see. He's baring our soul, while simultaneously reminding fans he owes us nothing in terms of personal sexual confession.

It echoes through songs like "Faith," "Careless Whisper," and perhaps most explicitly in "Father Figure." It’s incredibly moving to approach this gospel-laden balled long after its release, and relive the silent pain and subtle hope in lyrics like, "That's all I wanted / But sometimes love can be mistaken / For a crime / That's all I wanted / Just to see my baby's / Blue eyes shine.”

George Michael stood as a pinnacle of hope for queer people with sex lives, for gay teenagers that don't understand why the representation of their sexuality is a threat to innocence and decency. He fought against the notion that gay sex is somehow dirty. 

He couldn't accomplish it all, obviously. Shows like Modern Family brag about LGBT representation, yet they neglect to include the sex lives of those characters. Meanwhile, straight characters engage in ever-more explicit actions on network TV. Michael stood in the spotlight and demanded the humanization of all types of people, rather than sanitizing them until they are unrecognizable to their own communities. In his own words:

I'm not trying to make George Michael into a saint. In fact, I'm working in precisely the opposite direction. I would like everyone tweeting their love for him to remember the filthy, sexy, imperfect man who was arrested for engaging in a "lewd act" in a public restroom and, in 2006, for possessing Class C drugs (which he called "my own stupid fault, as usual").

I'd like you to remember him as someone who loved fucking and dancing and smoking weed. Remember the man who was open about his struggles with mental illness and addiction. The man who put his ideals ahead of his successes. 

Right now we are all listening to "Faith," "Careless Whisper," and "Father Figure," but I think George would rather we revisit "I Want Your Sex" and “Too Funky.”

So, here's to all of the deviants of every gender, religion, and color who celebrate their fabulous selves every day. Here's to the queers who refuse to let their sexuality take a backseat for the sake of someone else's feelings.

Here's to you, George.