News of singer George Michael’s death on Dec. 25 cut through the Christmas Day cheer with an outpouring from fans, friends, and colleagues saddened by his sudden passing at age 53. While his status as a pop music icon was one he wore with great pride, he wasn’t necessarily comfortable with being a gay icon. In fact, his decision to come out in 1998 was not intentional.
Michael was famously busted in 1998 for “lewd behavior” in a Beverly Hills park. The embarrassing incident is what pushed him into publicly admitting he was gay to CNN, finally putting an end to the rumors that had trailed him throughout his career. But as he told the BBC in 2014, coming out wasn’t the relief he hoped it would be.
“For some strange reason, my gay life didn’t get easier when I came out. Quite the opposite happened, really,” he shared. “The press seemed to take some delight that I previously had a ‘straight audience,’ and set about trying to destroy that. And I think some men were frustrated that their girlfriends wouldn’t let go of the idea that George Michael just hadn’t found the ‘right girl’ [yet]. Which is still what a lot of my extended family still think!”
Which is probably part of the reason why he wasn’t in any hurry to tell the world he was gay. Though early on in his career he’d confessed to Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley that he was bisexual, some of his family members discouraged him from talking about it — and Michael reportedly worried about the effect his sexuality would have on his mother. It wasn’t until falling in love with a man that he realized he was gay. As he told Judy Wieder, the editor in chief of the Advocate, in 1999, “I never had a moral problem with being gay. I thought I had fallen in love with a woman a couple of times. Then I fell in love with a man, and realized that none of those things had been love.”
He also told the BBC he never wanted to place judgment on anyone for their decision to come out — or not.
“Because it’s about family,” he told them. “In the years when HIV was a killer, any parent of an openly gay person was terrified. I knew my mother well enough that she would spend everyday praying that I didn’t come across that virus. She’d have worried like that.”
Michael’s most high-profile romance was with Kenny Goss, with whom he broke up in 2011 after 13 years together. But even the stability of that relationship didn’t save him from more troubles. He was arrested on drug possession in 2006 and 2008. And in 2010, he was in a car crash that led to his arrest for driving under the influence of marijuana — an incident that sent him to jail for a month. And while that experience resulted in him getting sober, he faced another major trial in 2011, when he had a near-death experience while battling pneumonia.
Regarding the 2010 crash and jail time, Michael noted, “I realized it had to be something to do with me. It shook me out of my denial. After that crash happened, I started drug counseling and was two weeks in detox, none of which I made public. It feels so completely behind me now. It really does.”
Michael’s last album, 2014’s Symphonica, was his first release in over a decade, and his first after becoming sober.
“I knew that one of the things that was going to keep me clean was rewarding myself with music,” he said. “I knew regardless of anything else, singing in front of an orchestra was going to be inspirational. It would feed me.”
At the time, it seemed like he might have been getting more comfortable with the idea of being an icon for the gay community, as he’d shared he was experiencing a creative uprising and said he’d “like to do something for the gay community. Possibly a dance album.”
Although it was reported he was working on new material at the time of his death, it remains unclear if we’ll ever hear it. Regardless of how he felt about his history, his outing, and his visibility as a member of the gay community, his contributions to the world are indelible. He will be missed.