George Michael came out later than many would have liked, but he came out with a (dirty, anonymous) bang. Many of us come out late — most wish we had come out sooner. But few of us can say that our coming-out story permanently marked our queer lives. For many of us, coming out was simply the beginning, an event that eventually got overshadowed by better, richer experiences. But George never lived down his coming-out — or, rather, his “outing.” It was public, scandalous, and almost custom-written for tabloids. Today, there are many out gay celebs, but who can say they got arrested for lewdness (pulling his dick out) in a public restroom in Beverly Hills? Hell, yeah!
After than infamous 1998 hookup, Michael became relentlessly sex-positive, perhaps to his detriment, for the remainder of his career. He never seemed apologetic about his sex life — in his greatest-hits album he released following the arrest, his song “Outside” set its video clip in a men’s restroom. I don’t want to forget that sleazy, sexy side of George Michael. Despite all the clean-cut, polished queer celebs out there, from Anderson Cooper to Neil Patrick Harris and his picture of familial cuteness to power couple Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black, I identified with Michael most.
Most gay celebs probably won’t admit they like getting fucked up and fucking guys in public — but George did, and I do. That’s what my gay life is like, not the glamorous, conventional life of married, monogamous couples. Michael and I were cut from the same cloth. Our world is filled with drugs and dance floors. We struggle with sex and image and finding sincere connections. It’s easy for us to get depressed and overwhelmed. When I look at my straight counterparts, I see a different culture and a different set of ideals, a world of kids and big family Thanksgivings and a lot less drag and a lot less dope. I imagine when Michael, shut in his house in Oxfordshire, England, in his final days, looked out at the world of his straight counterparts, including his legions of devoted fans, he saw something similar.
The juiciest part of his career happened before I came along, but I still latched on to “Father Figure” in high school, 20 years after it came out, because I was living my own coming-out story and found strength in kitschy queer icons that came before me. I joined the legions of countless homos who loved Michael for loving sex and getting caught and wearing leather pants.
But many of us forgot about him over the years. We assumed he was trooping along, dating boys, and living comfortably. So the reports that he died alone, a recluse, on Christmas Day are heartbreaking. From this news, I suddenly step closer to Michael than ever before. I know he struggled with drugs — he was arrested in 2006 and 2008 for drug-related charges, and in 2010, after a Gay Pride parade, he drove his car into a storefront.
But the fact is, I’ve heard many stories like this. He may have been one of the guys in my gay men’s Crystal Meth Anonymous group, raising his hand in a meeting, sharing his feelings, trying to stay sober. There are so many of us out there that the world doesn’t see.
No official coroner’s report has been released, and I have doubts if one ever will be, but for me, Michael’s death proves again that, aside from HIV, there is another scourge sweeping over gay men — the silent one. We have a drug problem, and have had one for a long time.
If addiction may be seen socially as the disease it is, we could start addressing it with antistigma campaigns the same way we do HIV. Gay men: Your best friend is an addict. We hush the drug-related details of celeb deaths for the same reasons the media has long shied away from saying someone died of AIDS-related complications — because we believe their diseases somehow disrespect their legacies, and because we shame these diseases. We have lost some of the world’s greatest minds — artists, writers, thinkers, performers — to AIDS, and we will continue losing great people to addiction if we continue crouching and creeping around it, keeping it out of the spotlight. Just as we call out publications that report poorly and ignorantly on HIV, we must call out publications that report poorly on drug use, and ignore sensationalist headlines that vilify drugs or the people who use them. Shaming anything doesn’t make anyone safer — it does the exact opposite.
I mourn George because I lost one of my own — in more ways than one. In 2017, let’s create safe spaces for celebrities and everyone to get help, find community, and spend Christmases with others. And let’s listen to hits like “I Want Your Sex” and the indefatigable Pride ballad “Freedom! ’90” again and again in memoriam. And let’s go cruising in public restrooms — because it’s fun.
(RELATED: George Michael — All the Way Out)
ALEXANDER CHEVES is an Atlanta-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @BadAlexCheves.