Peter Tatchell: I met George Michael in 1980, and knew he’d be a star

Peter Tatchell December 28, 2016
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George Michael‘s sudden, sad death has robbed the world of a great artist.

He was also a star with a social conscience and a strong commitment to human rights. As well as his awesome music, particularly the music of his solo career, which stands the test of time, he spoke out against many injustices, including homophobia and the Iraq War.

George gave free concert tickets to NHS nurses and helped raise funds for AIDS charities such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, and for Childline, Palestine, Comic Relief and, in the 1980s, for the striking miners. His support for LGBT rights included performing at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 2010 and, before that, at the Equality Rocks concert in Washington DC in 2000.

I first met George in about 1980, when he was still a teenager and long before he was famous. It was a chance meeting in a small gay disco above a pub by Manor House tube station in north London. He was a great dancer and sang along to the tracks played by the DJ. He had a good voice and said he was going to be a pop star. There were lots of wannabes in those days. But he was clearly talented. I thought: maybe this guy might actually achieve something. I was nevertheless surprised, and pleased, when he hit the big time three years later with Wham!

In the 1980s, after he’d become a chart-topper, he was going to the gay nightclub Bolts, in Haringey, even though he was still closeted and not open about his homosexuality. This was a risky move for a major music artist, but typical of the risks he often took throughout his life. Some of us wondered whether going to Bolts was a manifestation of an unconscious wish to get outed by the press so he’d be forced to stop leading a secretive double life, with all the stresses it entailed.

George did not publicly come out as gay of his own choosing and not until relatively late, in 1998 when he was in his mid-thirties, after he was busted in an undercover police sting operation in Los Angeles. But he turned his arrest into a defiant defence of the right to be gay and to cruise, which won him public plaudits for his candour. He parodied the incident entertainingly and perfectly with the song Outside and the accompanying video.

In the 1980s, he chose not to reveal that he was gay because he feared a negative reaction from his parents, fans, record company and, particularly, the tabloid press. Back then, the red tops were vicious to gay public figures. They were vilified and smeared. Being gay was portrayed as a scandal and shame. The tabloid press besmirched many a career during that time.

This was also the era of AIDS, which was often dubbed “the gay plague”. Gay men were blamed for the deadly virus. Public attitudes became much more homophobic. Gay-bashings and murders rocketed. It was a fearful period to be gay, let alone a gay public figure. I wish George had come out then, as he could have helped counter that tide of prejudice. But I understand why he didn’t.

As well as being a brilliant composer and singer, George had a social conscience, did message music and raised lots of money for good causes.

His 1990 record Praying for Time was a hauntingly beautiful, albeit despairing, critique of poverty and injustice. He did not appear in the official video. There were no dancers or sexy boys and girls. It was a black screen with the lyrics in white. He clearly wanted his fans to focus on and understand his message.

He was also vocal in his opposition of the Iraq War. His 2002 Shoot the Dog track was a savage satire on George W Bush and Tony Blair and his song The Grave a year later was a lament about the wasted young lives lost in war – deliberately timed to coincide with what he regarded as the allies’ unjustified, illegitimate intervention in Iraq. Shoot the Dog was a brave move that lost George fans in gung-ho patriotic America. But he stuck to his principles and showed his critics that he wasn’t a mindless, hedonistic pop heart-throb.

George Michael’s legacy is that of a supremely talented performer, an opponent of injustice and a charitable humanitarian. His music will live on for decades and continue to bring enjoyment and inspiration to millions. Bravo!

More: gay music, George Michael, Music, Peter Tatchell, pop

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