What George Michael Taught Me

The pop icon showed gay sexuality as complex and real

These days, the preferred method of coming out for celebrities is a glossy magazine cover or, barring the adequate amount of fame, a meticulously worded social media post. But when George Michael divulged the secret of his sexuality to the world, he did it in a nearly seven-minute performance at MTV’s first Europe Music Awards and let the audience decide what they’d heard. The ceremony took place in Berlin on November 24, 1994, commemorating the Berlin Wall’s MTV-documented fall five years earlier. In a leather jacket and his trademark sunglasses, Michael performed “Freedom! ’90,” a rousing anthem of self-discovery that was malleable enough to play as a symbolic kiss-off to the Wall and the past it represented. But Michael’s most vital performance that evening in Berlin was “Jesus to a Child,” a new song that would go on to be the lead single from his third solo album, Older. Four years later, Michael confirmed that the performance, dedicated to his late lover, Anselmo Feleppa, was his quiet coming out ceremony.

To be fair, Michael, who died at the age of 53 on Christmas Day, never truly had to come out. Whether it was the tight denim jeans, the immaculately coiffed hair, or the single dangling earring in an era where that bore significance (a hoop during his Wham! era, a cross when he went solo), the pop icon telegraphed queerness to those who knew what to look for. While Prince, Michael’s contemporary, strutted about the stage in high heels and teased a queer aesthetic provocatively, George Michael’s aesthetic was quietly subversive; he never seemed like he was courting controversy. Michael’s gayness was coded, private, and concealed. Explaining why he rarely appeared without his dark aviator sunglasses, Michael told Rolling Stone in 2011: “I was really overwhelmed, so I lived in sunglasses. I couldn’t make eye contact with people, it was bizarre.”

Michael loved Anita Baker, The Supremes, and Janet Jackson remixes. He told MTV’s Kurt Loder in 1989 that he preferred singing other artists’ songs more than performing his own work live. For gay adolescents who sang along to their favorite pop divas’ songs without replacing the male pronouns — drawing parental concern — Michael provided them with a chance to sing in the tradition of those songs without fear of discovery. His hits “Faith,” “I Want Your Sex,” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” if you so choose, are coded messages of a musician giving his fans a safe haven, free of gender pronouns and lyrical ambiguities: “Well, I need someone to hold me / But I’ll wait for something more.”

I say “if you so choose” because I’m not in the business of ascribing queerness to situations where none exists. But it’s impossible to remove the text of his mid-’80s pop career in Wham! and first two solo albums from the subtext of his sexuality. In a 1998 CNN interview that served as Michael’s official coming out, he said, “I do want people to know that the songs that I wrote when I was with women were really about women.” Interviews with Michael have always had their own bit of apocrypha attached to them; they begged us to question whether he was ever completely telling the truth. In a Rolling Stone profile a decade earlier, Michael addressed the persistent gay rumors, or so readers thought: “I’ve always thought that people speculated so much because I was so quiet about my private life. ... What bugs me is that rumor is always accepted as fact.”

Michael’s first gay relationship wasn’t until 1991, but in 1982 he confided in his Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley that he was sexually attracted to men. The songs about women “were really about women,” sure, but on later songs like 1990’s “Freedom,” the lyrical subtext is unmistakable: “There’s something deep inside of me / There’s someone else I’ve got to be.”

Meeting Feleppa changed Michael’s need for invisibility. “I’ve waited for you all those years,” Michael sang in the song he wrote in Feleppa’s memory. It was on tour in Rio that he met Feleppa and fell in love with him. Unfortunately for Michael, his first gay relationship was to be short-lived. Feleppa had AIDS and died two years later of a brain hemorrhage while visiting family in Brazil. The unexpected death of his lover sent Michael into a depression and a bout of writer’s block. The only words he managed to eke out were in a handwritten note to his parents the day after Feleppa’s death, when he finally came out to his parents.

It was nearly two years before Michael was finally able to write a song — “Jesus to a Child.” The lyrics were clearly about how quickly Feleppa had been taken from him: “Heaven sent and heaven stole” and “Just when it began / He took your love away.” Michael performed the song live at the 1994 EMA, broadcasting to the world his anguish over Feleppa’s death. The song, stripped of pronouns, describes Feleppa only as “a love.” But the visceral lyrics — performed with a full orchestra, his leather jacket replaced with a floor-length duster, and iconic sunglasses removed — made it clear that this wasn’t just a song, that they were about someone important to him. Speculation about his sexuality had been dormant during his absence from the pop charts, but “Jesus to a Child” fueled them once again.

While Michael wasn’t a religious man, his lyrics were filled with Catholic imagery; his single cross earring will be immortalized in the pop-culture canon for eternity. And the usage seemed genuine, not sardonic à la Madonna’s juxtaposition of sex and religion. But why, then, did a man who told GQ he “can’t bear Catholicism” wear a cross on his ear? Michael described once finding Feleppa in bed with prayer cards. Of the instance, he said, “I just thought to myself, Please don’t tell me you think you’re going to hell. It makes me so angry and I sincerely hope he didn’t fear that.” Maybe he wore the cross because it was a signal to those fans who loved him, who saw their own struggle with their homosexuality in him, a subversive reminder that they weren’t going to suffer eternal damnation for being themselves. If the cross didn’t burn Michael when he took the stage to honor his lover, it’s proof God loves you, too.

There’s an odd thing that happens when you come out of the closet as a gay man. Someone is always quick to remind you that they always knew, perhaps out of some anxiety or a lack of proper words to say to someone who’s revealing such an intimate part of their identity. But to the person coming out, it can feel like a game of one-upmanship. Michael’s 1998 CNN interview addressed that when he said, “I spent my years growing up being told what my sexuality was really, you know, which is kind of confusing. And then by the time I kinda worked out what it was, and I stopped having relationships with women, I was just so indignant of the way I’d been treated until then. I just thought, Well, I’ll just hold on to this, I don’t think they need to know, I don’t think I should have to tell them.” So his quiet performance in Berlin, a groundbreaking moment in his life, came without much fanfare from Michael himself.

It was not until four years later, when Michael was arrested for “lewd behavior” in a Los Angeles public men’s room, that he publicly came out of the closet. In his now-famous CNN interview, he doesn’t wear his sunglasses as he did in so many interviews prior. “This is as good a time as any,” he said as he announced to the world that he was gay. Later that year, he released the winking single “Outside,” which addressed his penchant for exhibitionist sex. A topic that was sitcom fodder or a B story line on Sex and the City for straight people was still taboo and condemnable for gay men.

Some wish to neuter or whitewash Michael’s sexual activities that brought his orientation to the fore. But he was never ashamed of them, nor should he have been. Cruising has been a part of the gay community for as long as publicly living our lives has been criminally punishable. And as a man who came of age in the early ’80s, decades before gay hookup apps like Grindr, Michael had to swivel his hips in public in hopes of catching the eye of a sexual partner. Michael once apologized for his cruising incidents and public intoxication arrests, if only because he knew that the media would cover the episodes with a homophobic slant. But he was still unabashed and extremely open about the thrill he found in public sex, or how he and Kenny Goss, his partner for 13 years until 2009, had a nonmonogamous relationship. His candor was powerful, because it showed a complex and realistic example of a gay man that didn’t sanitize himself for the heteronormative public’s comfort. Because Michael was always ahead of his time, it’s odd to hear new gay pop stars like Troye Sivan tell Paper magazine, “Someone like Ricky Martin coming out, or George Michael ... I just couldn’t see myself in those people. They were so much older than I was, and, yeah, it was just a different world.” From his sex-positive attitude to throwing himself into visible HIV activism long before it was a mainstream Gap-sponsored movement, Michael lived his life honestly.

Just as Michael honored gay icons like Freddie Mercury who came before him, new gay pop provocateurs could learn from Michael’s example on how to be a gay role model. It doesn’t involve sterilizing yourself; it involves being yourself at all costs. With Michael’s passing, he’s left a legacy of powerful pop music that is no longer hidden in Mattachine code. We will always have the image and the albums of an immaculately talented gay man who presented himself as who he was to the world, even if we didn’t quite yet understand what he was telling us.