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The Straightness of George Michael

Mark Simpson on how George Michael was the missing, subversive gay link between Bowie and Beckham

(Rolling Stone, 28/12/2016)

Back in the early 1980s, I was one of those annoying ‘alternative’ teens who, when pressed, would admit they quite liked ‘Wham Rap!’, which extolled the freedoms of unemployment (‘I’m a soul boy! – I’m a dole boy!’), and acknowledged he was ‘really talented’, but essentially dismissed George Michael as ‘too commercial’. Which in the inverted snobbery of the era essentially meant ‘uncool’.

And also – you may find this rather difficult to believe – ‘too straight’.

Thanks to the massive influence of 1970s Bowie (who also checked out this year), the early 80s UK pop scene was queerer than Weimar Berlin on poppers. It was chock full of fabulously ‘freaky’ stars like Pete Burns of Dead or Alive (another victim of 2016), Boy George of Culture Club and Marc Almond of Soft Cell. None of them were particularly out at the time, but then, looking the way they did they probably didn’t need to be.

By dazzling-teethed contrast, the disco-dancing, bird-pulling, Mr Good Time persona Mr Michael presented – but which seems to have been based largely on his Wham partner Andrew Ridgeley – looked almost heterosexual.

Almost. OK, the leather jackets, the naked boy-flesh and the blow-dried hair appears très camp to us now, but that wasn’t necessarily the case at the time. George was officially very much for the ladies and the ladies were even more for him. But also, as his success grew, ‘loadsa’ straight boys wanted to be him.

After all, his (white) soul boy image was a tweaked, glammed-up, sexed-up, slightly Princess Di version of what many wedge-sporting, Lacoste-wearing working class London and Essex lads were styling themselves at the time. And he was mega rich and famous and getting his leg over.

In one of those peculiar postmodern ironies that made masculinity what it is today – flamingly metrosexual – George Michael’s ‘closetedness’ for two decades of pop stardom meant that straight women ended up expecting rather more from straight boys and straight boys ended up copying a gay version of themselves.

Michael’s multiplied image helped make ordinary male heterosexuality visually tartier, while his amplified lyrics helped make it more available emotionally. A straight female friend of mine told me that every single boyfriend she dumped in the 1980s sent her lyrics from ‘A Different Corner’.

George Michael was the missing, subversive – and actually gay – link between David Bowie and that other London pretty boy, David Beckham.

Even when a now-solo Michael ‘butched up’ for the rather more ‘traditionally-minded’ American market with his smash hit 1987 album Faith, the effect was… ambiguous. More so arguably, than the twinkiness of Wham! In the famous promo for the title single, he is wearing jeans, boots, a leather jacket and sunglasses in what looks like a homage to the previous year’s Hollywood fly boys hit Top Gun. But with a large crucifix earring and designer stubble (this accessorization of facial hair is something else ‘gay’ he helped popularise.)

He’s next to a 1950s jukebox like the one in the Top Gun bar, wiggling his butt apparently trying to invent twerking, while the camera zooms in on it relentlessly (the word ‘REVENGE’ hovering above on his leather jacket). Perhaps waiting for Maverick – or maybe Iceman.

This might sound like the wisdom of hindsight, but some contemporary gay boys were picking up the queer vibrations. An American gay male friend who was living on a military base at the time remarked: “He was the first teen idol that felt “gay” to me even though he was always with sexy women in his videos. I didn’t even know what the gay clone look was, but he was sort of replicating it. The earring also seemed a signal – my dad said fags wore those, especially in the left ear.”

George’s phenomenal success in the US and the subconscious ‘down low’ queer signals he was broadcasting in plain sight came, remember, at the height of the Aids crisis and the foam-flecked reactionary backlash in the late 80s against ‘Satanic’ and ‘sick’ homosexuality.

Perhaps it was because of how he’d helped redefine heterosexuality for a generation, when he finally came out in 1998, toilet paper stuck to his shoe, a surprising number of straight people were still shocked – despite having been fairly explicit about his orientation in the lyrics and dedications of his songs for most of that decade.

Though of course there is another piquant irony to be had in the fact that this man whose career had originally been based on ‘masquerading’ as a heterosexual was finally outed in a public restroom by a plainclothes Beverly Hills Police Dept officer who (George claims) was masquerading as a gay man.

However, the way George handled that incident was so defiant and assured that he completely turned the tables on not just the Beverly Hills PD and the tabloid press, but also homophobia itself. He immediately told the world he was gay and refused to display any shame.

Instead, he released ‘Outside’, a jaunty single extolling the pleasures of outdoor sex for everyone, regardless of sexuality – along with a video that featured cross and same sex couples getting it on in hidden away outdoor places, while being recorded by a police helicopter. George in gay cop gear disco dances in a public restroom where the glitter balls descend from the air vents and the urinals revolve. In many ways, this was the absolute zenith of pop music as propaganda for pleasure and against shame.

What George achieved with ‘Outside’ was certainly than historic. That original pop star Oscar Wilde had been convicted of Gross Indecency a hundred years earlier and been completely destroyed by it. George had turned his own ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ into an all-singing, all-dancing commercial and cultural triumph.

Now that he was out, New Millennium George still refused to ‘go quietly’ and ‘make it easy on himself’. He was not what you might call a ‘good gay’. He had a long term partner but was frank about the fact that their relationship was an open one – when most gay celebrity couples maintained a veneer of monogamous respectability.

He remained true to the dream (and nightmare) of masculine freedom that male homosexuality can symbolise. For all his faults and increasing foolishness, he refused to become that most absurd of things a ‘role model’. He insisted that he remained a sexual being – unlike most other celeb UK gays in the Noughties. ‘Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable,’ he told the Guardian in 2005. ‘And automatically my response to that is to say I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.’

The tabloids thought they knew how to ‘deal’ with it. In 2006 they sent a flash photographer to follow him to the famous gay cruising area of Hampstead Heath, a large park in north London – at 2am – and plaster the results all over the front page, along with oodles of hypocritical concern about his ‘sick’ and ‘sordid’ behaviour and warnings/incitements that he ‘could get his throat cut’.

His reported response to the photographer when ‘snapped’ was, however, pitch perfect: “Are you gay? No? Well fuck off then!”

Sexual jealousy of course was at the root of it all. The scandalously free availability of ‘no-strings’ sex is an aspect of the gay and bi male world that many straight men tend to be very interested in, one way or another – and had been at the root of much of the tabloid attacks on gay men at the height of the Aids panic. Gay men ‘deserved’ Aids because of their ‘unnatural’ sex lives and their promiscuity. For having, in other words, too much fun.

One famous tabloid editor and columnist from that era worked himself into a violent lather of indignation: ‘I can’t stand George Michael and every time he tries to laugh off another vile gay sex exploit I dislike him a little more… I’d like to give him a good kick in the balls. Unfortunately, he’d probably enjoy it.’

But these bitter voices were already beginning to recede into the past – thanks in part to the changes that Mr Michael had helped bring about by being the kind of ‘commercial’ pop star I disdained in my teens. And of course, nowadays straight people have Tinder. While in the UK at least, straight(ish) ‘dogging’ has pretty much replaced gay ‘cruising’.

His continued, unapologetic – ahem – pride in his not always exactly wise life-choices remains invigoratingly rare in an age of safe sleb spin and public apologies as grovelling as they are empty.

‘I don’t want any children; I don’t want responsibility,’ he told Time Out matter-of-factly in 2007. ‘I am gay, I smoke weed and I do exactly what I want in my life because of my talent’.

Michael’s earlier secrecy about his sexuality was criticised by many – including gay pop stars who didn’t come out until after their careers were effectively over. Perhaps he could, as some have insisted, combatted the transatlantic anti-gay tide by coming out in the 80s or early 90s. Or perhaps his career would merely have been ended, and with it much of his influence.

Whatever his reasons for staying in so long, and whatever the long term effects on his happiness, being ‘openly closeted’ for so long seems to have been key to not only making Michael a commercially-successful artist but also a surprisingly subversive one.

And perhaps it also lay behind his determination, once out, not to go back into the biggest closet of all. Respectability.

The Global Glory Hole

Cottaging

Mark Simpson on the enduring allure of anonymous sex in an age of gay marriage and ‘anti-social networking

I was sixteen when saw my first glory hole. Or rather, saw my first filled glory hole. It was in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, a public-spirited, snobbish spa town well-served by shiny Victorian lavatories. The throbbing, fleshy wall-fitting in my tiled cubicle was quite a sight. Glorious, even. Truly an impressive, proud piece of polished plumbing.

Cottaging, or cruising for sex in public lavatories and parks, was once a mainstay of the gay demi monde. It’s easy to see why. When any and all sex between men was still illegal as it was in the UK before the (partial) decriminalisation of 1967, anonymous sex was often the only kind available. It was probably the only sensible kind too since the more your partner knew about you the more you left yourself open to blackmail. Thanks to British municipal pride, toilets were everywhere – and also nowhere: a kind of wordless no man’s land where anything might happen. Much like homosexuality.

The glory hole itself is the ultimate symbol of anonymous ‘no strings’ sex – an erect, disembodied cock sticking through a wall. Even bricks and mortar can’t hold it back. Nameless, shameless desire. As a horny teenager in the early 1980s, when sex with another male was still completely illegal for me – not being over 21 and not in a position to have sex ‘in private’, two key, killjoy stipulations of the 1967 Act – I was very, very interested in what went on in public toilets.

Orton toilet

Joe Orton’s favourite watering hole.

But I never really got the hang of it. Less Joe Orton more sad Captain in Querelle of Brest I preferred to scrutinise the filthy, imploring messages and somewhat optimistic anatomical drawings on the walls. The business of standing around for hours like cheese at four pence pretending to piss was beyond me – I was far too self-conscious already. Plus sex in cubicles seemed foolish: there’s no escape route, either from the rozzers or from the other party.

It was only later, after running away to London and joining the out-and-proud gay world of gay bars and clubs and volunteering for London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard that I discovered my true home – an overgrown corner of Hampstead Heath popular at night with gentlemen having trouble sleeping. The old skool twilight world of the homosexual is where I really belonged. I spent many warm summer evenings there enjoying wordless trysts that were often as romantic as they were anonymous. I also spent many long hours wandering around in ever-expanding circles in the freezing fog in February. Compulsive sex can be pretty compulsive.

As that global glory hole called the internet was to make even clearer. The arrival of online ‘dating’ sites like Gaydar in the late 90s depopulated gay cruising areas like Hampstead Heath – which had already suffered competition from the host of back rooms, sex clubs and gay saunas that opened in London that decade. But now everyone was sat at home logged on with a lob on looking to ‘accom’. Today of course it’s all about Grindr, the mobile gay ‘dating’ app that uses GPS technology to allow you to cruise for locally-sourced cock at Tescos, on the bus or while having dinner with your mum.

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Which has created something that looks, through a vandalised toilet cubicle partition, like a paradox. Now that homosexuality has been completely decriminalised, legal equality and acceptance achieved, same sex marriage is on the way – and most public toilets have been shut or turned into tanning salons – it sometimes seems as if all gay men today are e-cottaging. Constantly.

Some argue that this is a shameful and shame-filled hangover from the period of illegality and hiding – that it’s a form of internalised homophobia preventing gay men from having proper (i.e. monogamous) relationships. This seems to be the thesis of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning 2008 play The Pride, currently running at Trafalgar Studios, London in a new production by Jamie Lloyd. In it a 1950s male couple are driven apart by guilt and repression, while a contemporary gay couple are riven by the ‘self-hating’ ‘addiction’ one of them has to anonymous sex.

Some have gone further and argued that because gay men can get civil partnered or soon, married, they now owe it to society to leave behind their irresponsible lifestyle from an oppressed past, stop letting the side down and ‘grow up’.

Into what, though?

Now, I certainly wouldn’t deny that casual sex can be a bad habit that’s difficult to break – and one that can make having a long-term relationship more difficult. But really only if monogamy is part of the deal. And in my experience most long term gay male relationships are open (though I realise you’re not supposed to say that in front of straight people). Arguably, the always-available culture of anonymous sex, the gaping glory hole, isn’t what stops gay men from having relationships, it’s perhaps what makes many long-term gay relationships possible where otherwise the commitment might be too smothering.

Precisely because sex is so freely and so anonymously available for gay men it is less likely to be the foundation of their relationship – and sex outside the relationship less likely to represent a threat. ‘Darling, I promise you, he meant nothing to me!’ is a line that most gay men don’t need to use – since they probably only know the ‘other woman’ as ‘MassiveMeat69’.

And if I wanted to be really cynical I could say that as far as the penis is concerned there is only one kind of sex and it’s anonymous.

While the general relevance of gay culture for gay people tends to recede as homophobia rapidly falls off and integration speeds up, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that the world of anonymous sex persists and in fact flourishes. Like camp it’s the slutty sensibility of a culture of (too much) choice – and an escape from (out-and-proud) identity. After all, Grindr’s logo is a mask. Anti-social networking.

The gay culture of anonymous, or at least ‘no strings’ sex is also something non gays seem very keen to appropriate. Ironically, now that gays have begun to convince much of the Western World they’re ‘just like straight people’ and thus worthy of marriage, straight people seem to be spending all their time dogging, checking their messages on Badoo and deconstructing monogamy.

But I would say that. When it comes to anonymous sex I’m a lifer. When I was in the grip of a pimply hormonal frenzy, gawping at glory holes, scanning the dirty graffiti, or cruising Hampstead Heath, I used to kid myself I was looking for love in all the wrong places. Then later I thought that I wanted love to save me from sex. Nowadays, like many other middle-aged men whose libido is in free-fall, I pray for sex to save me from love.

Mark Simpson’s Kindle Single ‘End of Gays?’ is available to download.

Promiscuity into Bureaucracy: Gaydar and Online ‘Dating’

The MP Chris Bryant has faced calls for his resignation for appearing in his pants in messages sent via a gay website – but others see Gaydar as the future of dating. So what is it really like? Mark Simpson speaks with the (exhausted) voice of experience

(Independent on Sunday, 7 December 2003)

Gay men are having sex! Lots of it! Every night! With a different man! And they don’t even have to leave the house!

There was more than a hint of sexual jealousy surrounding the ‘outrage’ in the British press last week’s over Gaydar, the cruising website where gay and bisexual men exchange instant messages, personal pictures, addresses and then sexual positions, often in less time than it takes to get served at a West End bar.

To condemn it however is to protest against the inevitable, since Gaydar’s methods will probably end up being adopted by everyone from 18-30 dating agencies to golden oldie matchmakers. And, judging by the passionate envy on display, its sexual mores will soon follow.

Oscar Wilde once famously defined a moralist as someone who likes to lecture on the evils of vices of which he has grown tired. In this accelerated age, a moralist is someone who likes to lecture on the evils of vices that they are about to try. However, as a (mostly) former internet cruiser, I’d like to report from the frontier of human degradation/innovation in the more traditional, Wildean form – as a sinner who has grown jaded.

If internet cruising is the future of dating, then there is certainly no future – or place – for romance. And probably no future for sex either.

At the height of the recent record-breaking summer heatwave, for old time’s sake, I visited the gay reservation of Hampstead Heath in the naive hope that the torrid weather might have made gays more more inclined to leave their pokey, humid bedrooms. But the Heath was deserted. There were one or two punters, but these were men of a certain age who had not yet figured out how to get online with the obsolete computer that a nephew off-loaded on them.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but what is the point of sex to a single homosexualist if it doesn’t get you out of the bloody house? On the hottest night of the year? Gays – all of them, every last one of them, especially those in relationships – are “logged on” with lob ons, looking for someone who will “travel” while they “accom”.

If Joe Orton had his time again his diaries would have been just printouts of thousands of Gaydar profiles and alarming digicam photos. I, for my part, look back on my pre-internet days of compulsive cruising of the Heath in the driving sleet and rain as a golden age of warmth, romance and human contact.

Moralists who protest at gay e-promiscuity should actually be encouraging the Government to provide gays with grants for permanent broadband connections, since the internet not only keeps them off the streets and out of the parks, it turns all that messy sexual energy and appetite into … typing. Gays have become the unpaid secretaries of desire, filing and cataloguing human weakness. Promiscuity is now a form of bureaucracy. Tedious, eye-straining, number-crunching slave work.

Don’t bother feeling jealous, all you sexually frustrated, non-online non-gays: internet cruising is its own form of punishment, Dante’s e-ferno where thousands of disembodied souls in e-ternal torment constantly prod one another with inquisitorial malice: “stats?”, “into?”, and “how big’s your cock?”

The evil of internet cruising – and the reason why it will become irresistibly, devastatingly mainstream – is precisely its efficiency. IT plus a wired world means lust can be much more productive, much more accurate, much more all-consuming, and much more pointless. Internet cruising allows you to pursue endlessly and ever more obsessively your ultimate “type”. Like an especially well-organised, if unfriendly, Roman orgy, there are chat rooms for every (legal) fetish and taste. Gaydar members can search the database on height, age, hirsuteness, ethnicity, hair colour, pec-size and sex role (passive, active, or versatile). Strangely, there isn’t a box to check for “twinkly eyes” or “great sense of humour”.

But efficiency is precisely what sex is not about. Sex is a journey where, if you’re lucky, you get lost – like Hampstead Heath on a foggy night. Arriving is not really the point, it’s the confusions, the collisions, the diversions that are (sometimes) rewarding. With internet cruising there’s ultimately no escape from your own desire. Even when you actually meet someone off the net – one of you, reluctantly, agreeing to leave the house – they never really exist, and nor do you. You are both merely each other’s computer-generated horny hologram, one that dissipates with orgasm – “Cheers! ‘Ave a good one mate!” is the universal, embarrassed e-kiss off.

The most familiar cliché/complaint about internet dating is that when they turned up “they weren’t the person in the picture”. The real disappointment is that they were exactly the person on the profile. To the inch. It was a profile rather than a person you met and got groinal with. You were tricked, not by the flakiness of others, but by the emptiness of your own desire.

And no matter how “hot” the sex was for both of you, and no matter how much you both say you can’t wait to do it again and even make explicit arrangements to do so, it won’t happen. Come the appointed time, you’ll both be online again, looking for another profile that more exactly matches your requirements. What the internet giveth, the internet taketh away.

You see, the real efficiency of online dating, just as with internet anything, is not the way it delivers you lots of pointless sex without leaving the house, but the way that it ensures that you will be spending more time on the internet. The web is a jealous lover, and will countenance no infidelity that lasts longer than a hurried shag with some data it has selected and loaned you for an hour or so. Like a Las Vegas casino, the internet always wins. I’ve never met Mr and Mr Gaydar, and don’t know anything about them except that they must, having figured out a way to tax gay lust, be living in a penthouse apartment atop their own luxury skyscraper in Manhattan.

This kind of fierce fidelity can’t be supported indefinitely, however. Something has to give. Martin Luther may have described marriage as a curative for lust, but today that role has been usurped by the internet. Burn-out is the inevitable consequence of on-line dating. Or heart attack. If I didn’t find myself cured of lust I certainly found myself disenchanted.

By allowing me to focus on the boring “sex” to the exclusion of the arousing “journey” or “travelling” aspect of desire, internet cruising and the spinning bedroom turnstile it brought, utterly demystified sex. It was like working as a hustler but for free, and having to do all that hard work of choosing your clients instead of the other way around. Unforgivably, the internet has deprived me of my most cherished illusion: my faith in sex.

Which is really unfair. I mean, what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life? Not that I expect anyone to feel much sympathy. But let my jadedness be a warning to you all: internet dating will ruin your sex life.

By giving you one.

I Want Your Sex: Why the Press Can’t Leave George Michael’s Manhood Alone

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Why are the gentlemen of the popular press so interested in George Michael’s manhood?  Why won’t they leave it alone?

In 1998, after stalking him for years, in a painful pincer movement with Beverly Hills Police Department’s finest, they finally succeeded in catching him short in a men’s toilet. Now they despatch a flash photographer to follow him up to Hampstead Heath’s cruising area at 2am and then plaster the results all over the front page.

No wonder Michael angrily turned to the snapper and snapped: ‘Are you gay?  No?  Well f**K off then!’

Personally, I’ve never been that interested in George Michael’s toilet parts. I used to live a mile or so away from Hampstead Heath and cruised it myself many times (before the internet spoilt everything), and have seen Mr Michael down there – but we never bumped uglies.

The tabs appear most shocked by the fact that Mr Michael ‘who could have anyone’ allegedly chose to have fun in the dark, in the bushes with an unemployed 58-year-old pot-bellied man who lives ‘in a squalid flat in Brighton’. Yes, how awful. What a terrible crime. Perhaps he should have shagged the straight flash photographer instead? We know he has a much better paid job.

Of course, there’s more hypocrisy wafting across this story than poppers on a warm Saturday night on the Heath. Michael is lambasted for his ‘sick’ and ‘sordid’ ‘crazy’ and ‘addicted’ behaviour and advised to ‘seek counselling’ (plus rather a lot of barely-disguised queer-bashing incitement in the form of ‘warnings’ that he ‘could get his throat cut’).

But part of reason why the tabs are so interested in this story – and why they can’t leave George’s penis alone – is precisely because many if not most men can perfectly understand the appeal of anonymous, no-strings, no-romance sex.

It is this freely-available aspect of the homo demi-monde which most fascinates many straight men. Because they usually have to pay for it. Unless they’re very lucky.

In the same issue of the NOTW that exposed George Michael’s ‘sick’ behaviour one of the stars of reality TV show Bad Lads’ Army (someone whom I would like to bump uglies with) bragged that he had had sex with nearly 500 women before he reached the age of 21 and would often pick up three women a day on holiday.

Now, I’m guessing that with those stats their age, looks, employment status and the tidiness of their homes weren’t exactly major considerations for these chaps. Naturally, The Sun was as admiring and envious of this laddish behaviour as it was condemning of Michael’s. What’s sauce for the straight goose should be sauce for the gay gander.

This is something that Michael successfully argued himself after he was caught in that Beverly Hills lavatory in 1998. His single ‘Outside’ sang the praises of public sex. It was probably precisely his success in turning around this humiliation that embittered the tabs against him. The tabs hate it when they’re out-tabbed by their victims.

Inevitably, Michael’s long-term partner was mentioned in the Hampstead Heath expose to give a veneer of journalistic value to the story, but in fact Michael has been very frank about the ‘open’ nature of his relationship.  This is a degree of honesty with the world that few celeb gay couples show – even though many of them are in relationships more open than 7-Eleven.

Michael’s visit to Hampstead Heath just before a major comeback tour, wasn’t very clever, wasn’t terribly grown-up, and it may or may not be a sign of ‘compulsive’ behaviour, but it is certainly not a matter of national importance. Or even terribly interesting.

Male sexuality, gay or straight, is not very easily domesticated. If it were, then the tabloids would be the first to go out of business.

And Hampstead Heath wouldn’t be so busy at 2am. Even if nowadays newspaper photographers compulsively cruising for a story outnumber the punters.

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