Lessons George Michael Taught Me

Contributing Editor
George Michael
George Michael
Insasse [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I was with my family in Phoenix when I found out that George Michael had passed away. I was at my brother John and his wife Tami's house to celebrate Christmas with my family, 15 of us -- my mom, my brother Gerald and his wife Cindy, my sister Rayetta and my grown nieces and nephews -- all sitting in a circle 'round the tree doing our annual gift swap. For some reason I checked Facebook on my phone, probably to see whether my video of my Mom's Christmas tree had gotten any more likes. Then I saw the news, as my holiday newsfeed was peppered with "I'm so sad to hear about George Michael" and "George Michael RIP." I was shocked and blurted out the news to my family. "Wow, that's awful" was the general feeling. Someone mentioned that this was truly his "Last Christmas." Har-dee-har.

He first came into popularity in the '80s when I was in high school. There was something about him that really bugged me. There was nothing rational about it. He was young, criminally handsome, stylish and with a voice that I knew from the very first note was special. What's not to like?

It was that "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" song -- a little too happy, too bright. Him dancing around, first in a Choose Life t-shirt, then in that pink top with the yellow gloves and tight tiny blue and white shorts. The song was a celebration of life and love and youth, and even though I was young and alive, what I mostly felt was uncomfortable. This was years before either one of us came out as gay, but watching George Michael bop to the beat, I knew. It wasn't quite that my gay-dar was sounding, for the feeling was a little more profound than that. It was more like namast-gay: The homo in me recognizes and honors the homo in you. Yes, I could tell there was something about him that was like me -- the part of me that I hid and didn't tell anyone about, the part that was not like anyone else. And it bothered me.

But that song put the "jitterbug into my brain," and to that and other boppy music from the '80s, I was able to dance at school dances with abandon and freedom from fear that I wasn't like anyone else. It helped me find a place in myself that wasn't scared, if only for a few minutes at the streamer-decorated gym on a Friday night.

As I look back on the past 30-plus years, I realize how much his music and actions affected me. In the middle of the AIDS crisis, when everyone from the government to the media to our doctors was telling us that sex was deadly and scary, George was saying: "Sex is natural, sex is and good. Not everybody does it, but everybody should!" What an amazing statement from an artist at that time, and a brave one. He also reminded us that we "gotta have faith." And when he still wasn't publicly out as gay, he put out "Freedom 90" where he tolds us: "I think there's something you should know; I think it's time I told you so. There's something deep inside of me; there's someone else I've got to be." So, George had a secret too, just like me.

OK, OK, so he wasn't all bravery and gallantry. He was arrested in 1998 for "engaging in a lewd act" in a Beverly Hills park. When that all went down, I remember thinking, "Why is GEORGE MICHAEL cruising for sex in a bathroom?!? I mean seriously?? If he feels the itch, can't he just call an escort or five?" Of course he could! But when you're gay, and in the closet, you feel like you have to live in the shadows. And sometimes the shadows are where you feel the most comfortable. Later, George said that having to hide his sexuality made him feel like a fraud and that getting caught was subconsciously a deliberate act. He later took his arrest, one that any normal person would feel deep shame about, and made it into art. His song "Outside" took a situation that could have been a career ender and celebrated it with disco lights, dancers and kissing cops.

When he did finally come out as gay, he was unapologetic and bold about his truth. When Oprah asked him if he was worried that his openness about his sexuality might cause him to lose record sales, he said, "I'm not interested in selling records to people who are homophobic, really." He went on to say, "I don't need the approval of people who don't approve of me." About two years after George came out, I was able to find the bravery to come out to my family.

His music through the years is part of the soundtrack to my life. Everything from his early tunes such as "Careless Whisper" and "Father Figure" to his Symphonica album, which included amazing versions of such standards as "Feeling Good" and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," are in my music mix. Two years ago, when I was suffering through a particularly difficult break-up, George Michael's cover of "I Can't Make You Love Me" was a balm to my broken heart.

I'm back home in New York, and today at the gym, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" came up in my Pandora '80s mix. For reals! They must be playing more of his music this week to honor him. I rolled my eyes and went instinctively to skip it, when I paused and let it play. The song made me smile and even dance a little bit. It's really a great song.

You are already missed, George Michael, and I'm sad you are gone. I'm grateful for you. You made the sun shine brighter than Doris Day.