It seems hard to not react to George Michael’s death without considering the context of 2016.
This year has not just been a year in which our beloved celebrities have died, but it’s been a year in which LGBTQ people of a certain age have lost those who helped us come out and live authentic lives.
It’s cruel but fitting that Michael should pass away at the end of a year that’s already claimed David Bowie, Prince, transgender actress Alexis Arquette, and Dead or Alive singer Pete Burns. Not all of these people identified as LGBTQ, but they all pushed the acceptable boundaries and made it easier for those of us who didn’t fit into gender stereotypes.
No one coming out story is the same, but as I’ve spent a better part of two decades talking to fellow LGBTQ people about their experiences, I’ve found some common themes. Almost all of us had religious-like devotion to anything in pop culture that was friendly toward queer people or made by queer people themselves.
In the hours since learning that Michael passed away, I have been replaying one memory in particular.
In my mid-20s, I spent most of my Friday nights at a dive bar in Jacksonville, Fla., for “old wave night,” a dance night that spanned from the late ’70s to the early ’90s, playing mostly new wave and post-punk. It was a mixed group of bikers, former punks, Goths, and other DJs. It was like a dance night at the Mos Eisley Cantina from “Star Wars,” except more tattoos.
There were few songs that would unite the various people in that dark, smoke-filled bar, but Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” was one of those exceptions. My friends and I spent many a night dancing to that on the stage, wagging our fingers to every lyric, pretending our beer bottles were microphones.
It seems silly that with of all the things to think about with Michael’s passing, this decade-old memory is the thing on which I fixate. Shouldn’t I be thinking of how his performance in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was underrated? Or which parts of his album “Patience” have held up?
I’ve been overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions I’ve had these last few hours, as I’ve thought about how Michael’s work has helped shape me — Patrick the DJ, Patrick the pop culture blogger, Patrick the lover of most things ’80s-related. But thinking back to those nights where I would sashay around, pointing my finger and lip-synching to “Freedom ’90,” I realize that the biggest part of me he had an effect on was Patrick the queer person.
Part of me wonders whether today’s LGBTQ teens won’t seek out like-minded artists the way my friends and I did. Today’s queer youth have seen people like them in movies, major network TV shows, and commercials. There won’t be another George Michael, and not just because of his talent or his approach to music, but because the pop stars of today and tomorrow won’t feel the need to be closeted the way he did.
And that is why I can’t stop thinking about dancing to “Freedom ’90” in a Jacksonville dive bar. Because that experience — the joy of finally finding solace in a queer-friendly space — won’t be the same now that more people accept LGBTQ people. Today’s kids won’t find that as exciting as my friends and I did, and there’s something bittersweet about that.