George Michael blazed his own trail

  • Wednesday December 28, 2016
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British pop star George Michael's death on Christmas Day was a shocking loss, the last of 2016 of singers and musicians whose sexual fluidity or nonconformity gave hope to generations of queer kids. Rocker David Bowie, who at times during his long career identified as bisexual, died of cancer in January. Superstar Prince, who was not LGBT but whose androgynous persona attracted queer fans, succumbed to a drug overdose in April. Michael's spokesman said the former Wham singer died of heart failure.

Michael, Bowie, and Prince each presented different ways one could be a man. Their own masculinity may not have been "normal" in the eyes of most straight people, but each lived in their own skin and we are better for it. For young LGBTs growing up in the MTV era �" back when the popular TV station only showed music videos day and night �" Michael's unapologetic sexuality was groundbreaking, as were his 1980s hits. He acknowledged he was gay in 1998 after being arrested in a Beverly Hills park on lewd conduct charges. But his gay fans weren't surprised and they loved that he was proud to be gay and open about it in response. This was at a time when it was uncommon �" and it still is �" for a major music star to come out of the closet.

Decades ago, stars would shop their coming out stories to a friendly magazine or TV interviewer to soften any negative reaction to their careers. Occasionally, an LGBT publication would get to break the news. Today, people come out via social media and it's no big deal. To be sure, there are still the haters and homophobes, but usually a star's coming out is met with overwhelming messages of support; and it's often a relief to them. Michael said years ago that hiding his sexuality had made him feel "fraudulent" and he struggled with depression. That's quite common, and coming out can lift the burden on one's mental health. Michael also fought against HIV/AIDS long before it became a popular cause. And while he may have come out in the late 1990s, many astute fans suspected he was gay long before his success as a solo artist. As New York Times critic Wesley Morris wrote in his appraisal, "Mr. Michael ... never had to say he was gay for his gayness to seem apparent and unabashed."

It's easy to underestimate how Michael's honesty and visibility about his love life helped young people. He was a gay pop star they could relate to. He assured them that they weren't alone and bridged the isolation commonly experienced by queer youth. Of course, Michael endured brutal press coverage from the tabloids, notably Rupert Murdoch's Daily Mirror in London, which called him a "poof" and "pervert" over the years. In an ironic turnaround this week, the paper gave him a "tribute" cover.

After Michael's death, fan postings on Twitter showed a common theme: He insisted on being himself. A Twitter user who goes by Sid wrote, "George Michael's defiance was everything if you were a gay teenager in the 90s." Ilissa Gold tweeted, "In 2016 when toxic masculinity reigned, devastating to lose Prince, Bowie, and George Michael, who showed there's no one right way to be a man."

His open gay identity was an affront to social conservatives. There's a compelling urge to conform that can become stifling because of society's difficulty accepting difference. That's what stars like Bowie, Prince, and Michael did �" they stepped into the spotlight and challenged the mores of society. Because of their fame, they were able to pave their own way through their music. That they each sold millions of albums and performed to sold-out audiences over the years attested to fans' appetite for their craft.

These musicians did not lead perfect lives �" far from it. But they were extraordinarily talented and their music resonated �" then and now. The deaths of music icons Bowie, Prince, and Michael in one year leave a sudden void that causes us to realize their contributions will not be replaced.