George Michael Was The Sex Symbol I Needed

Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images.
I remember watching the video for “Freedom '90” as an artsy, queer little outsider, and feeling I wanted to climb through the TV and warm my hands on the fire of that exploding jukebox.

Naomi, Linda, Cindy: I didn’t want them — not the way most guys lusted after video vixens — I wanted to be like them. Their strength, verve, and sense of self were all qualities exemplified by George Michael, who died on Christmas at the age of 53. The OG generation of supermodels stood in as proxies for Michael in the iconic video, voicing his anthem for being yourself at all costs, and giving exactly zero fucks what anyone thinks.

Released in 1990, just as we millennials began making our way into the world, this resounding anthem spelled out the ethos of an entire generation — one that values individuality and freedom of expression above all else.

I didn’t have the same touchstones that LGBT kids do now — no Modern Family or Ruby Rose, no Bella Thorne coming out on Twitter or YouTubers sharing tearful confessions. But I had George. He may not have been out of the closet when I first felt our kinship, but neither was I. In my case, that didn’t last long — especially on account of Michael. With the release of his first two solo albums in 1987 and 1990, he became an international star and a singular kind of sex symbol for me and so many others, sparking a wildfire of sexual awakenings.
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Even before I was old enough to understand all the feelings that welled up in me watching George Michael on MTV, I felt certain of our connection. His swagger around beautiful women had nothing to do with consuming them or displaying them as eye candy; rather, he celebrated them, raising them to the highest echelons of pop culture. He gave them his voice as they lip-synced through “Freedom '90,” and they dominated the catwalk in the video for “Too Funky,” decked in outrageous couture. Though Michael maneuvers the camera like a voyeur, he’s appreciating their glamour and grace, not treating them like sex objects.

He was a rarity among male artists on the radio at the time, most of whom were busy professing their love of big butts or penchant for around-the-way girls. I knew I wasn’t one of them — George got me.
Along with Marky Mark in his Calvins, Michael’s butt in a pair of stonewashed Levis was engrained in the minds of many teenagers realizing our desire for men. Michael’s messages certainly cut both ways; he was “every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy,” after all. But his early songs as a solo artist — on Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 — had particular resonance for queer kids. In so many of his No. 1 hits, it’s right there in the title: “Freedom '90” told us to be ourselves and fuck all. We needed “Faith” in spades, and for someone to tell us “I Want Your Sex” — very simply, not to be ashamed of what we wanted, but to proudly demand it instead.

When what we needed was a “Father Figure,” a role model to prove that we belonged and could be sexual, unafraid, uninhibited, and desired — he not only allowed us all of that, he practically commanded our participation with every note.

He cast himself as a sex object with a voracious appetite from the start, and never apologized for it. Like other reigning pop artists of the time — Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson among them — he put sex at the forefront of his art. But unlike the latter two men, who claimed androgyny as their signature, Michael was decidedly masculine — leather jacket, aviators, and snarled lip, like a Tom of Finland drawing come to life.
When he was forced to come out in 1998, after being charged for lewd behavior in a Beverly Hills bathroom (charges he faced again in London nearly 10 years later), he vehemently stood by his conviction that sex — and how he chose to pursue it — is nothing but totally natural. (He even made a music video about cruising in the men’s room, and cast himself as the cop.)

His reasons for staying reticent about his sexuality until that highly publicized incident, as he explained in interviews, were both because he didn’t have a relationship with a man until his late 20s, and because of the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in the '80s and '90s, a cause for which he became a passionate advocate in his later years.

"I'd been out to a lot of people since 19. I wish to God it had happened then,” Michael explained in a 2007 radio interview. “I don't think I would have the same career… but I think I would have been a happier man."

We may wish he’d felt welcome to come out and be true to himself sooner, the way so many young people, famous and otherwise, do today. But he paved the way and brandished a torch for legions of us who grew up feeding on his attitude, aspiring to his bluster, and subscribing to the all-inclusive sexual fantasy he created with his music. He was there for us before many of us knew we needed him, and for that we’re forever grateful.

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