On April 8, 1998, an undercover police officer walked into a public bathroom at a park in Beverly Hills to arrest a man caught in a “lewd act”. The Rolling Stone report from that time does not mention what this lewd act might have been. It primly observes that the man was charged with a “misdemeanor” and that the park did not have “a reputation as a homosexual cruising ground”.
Back at the Beverly Hills police station, the officer found that the person he had just arrested was George Michael. George Michael, the man single-handedly responsible for making motorcycle corsets de rigeur, who had been the soundtrack for every high-school romance since 1984 (although, by 1998, Careless Whisper was already becoming elevator music). The same Michael who wrote “explore monogamy” in lipstick on women’s bodies, even as he sang “I want your sex” in a voice choked and throaty with desire.
This was before Boyzone’s Stephen Gately, the romantic one, had admitted that he did not have girls on his mind. And years before Ricky Martin thanked his boyfriend at the Grammys. Pop stars then were simply not gay. Earlier, Prince and Boy George had fashioned genderfluid public personas that oozed a mysterious sexuality – they seemed to be drawing on the energies of the glam rock moment that had just passed. But stars like Martin and Michael had made a career out of being aggressively heterosexual, in their videos at least.
Let’s go outside
So when Michael was arrested that spring, the reports painted a seamy world of soliciting and homosexual encounters, of families in the park being threatened by such lewd behaviour. It was not clear what the actual crime was, homosexuality or public exposure. Michael later suggested that he had been trapped into exposing himself to the policeman.
The pop star was unapologetic. Within months of the arrest, he had released a new video. It featured the song Outside. It was a metaphorical middle finger waved in the face of public morality, it was contempt of court in visual form.
There are couples having sex in bathrooms and elevators, there are urinals which sparkle under disco balls, there are dancers in saucy police uniforms. There is even a shot of buff men in a locker room, perhaps about to get intimate. Michael looks sardonically at the camera, singing “I think I’m done with the sofa”. It all leads up to the explosive suggestion: “let’s go outside”.
The star, who had been fined and made to do 80 hours of community service, even turned the punishment into a raunchy innuendo. “I’d service the community,” he sings, “but I already have, you see.”
The song could be an anthem for coming out, for blowing the lid off sex and sexuality, for joyously, defiantly owning up to your desires: “Let’s go outside,/ In the sunshine,/ I know you want to but you can’t say yes.” Even the adventure at the public toilet was later cast as an attempt to go out into the sunshine. Michael would call it “a subconsciously deliberate act” after years of keeping his sexuality a secret.
A promise of freedom
The 1990s were not an easy time to come out. Homosexuality was still associated with disease and promiscuity. Legal systems and attitudes were largely ranged against it.
Britain, where Michael was born, had decriminalised it in 1967. But the country still had laws such as Section 28, which said that local authorities could not circulate material or support teaching which seemed to promote homosexuality. California, where Michael had been arrested, was yet to recognise same-sex partnerships. And these were places with liberal views on gay relationships.
Besides, Michael was not making sentimental appeals about the freedom to love who you love or dignity, the mainstay of most gay rights campaigns. Throughout his career he had sung of “fast love” and seduction, he had been frank about enjoying anonymous sexual encounters. He was simply declaring his desire to have sex as and when he pleased.
It was a difficult pitch to swallow. The singer would later say that coming out did not make life easier for him. And he would never be quite such a star after the controversy of 1998, as legions of disappointed fans turned away. But a smaller number turned to his songs for comfort, feeling less lonely about who they were.
In the last decades of his life, George Michael became a gay icon all over the world. In India, still bound by Section 377 and common garden hate, his songs must have stood for the promise of freedom. Tragically, they still do, as a large and silent minority dreams of going outside.