The late star hid his sexuality for years but later became a defiant LGBT icon.

By Jim Farber
December 27, 2016 at 08:30 AM EST

It’s so common for pop stars to come clean about their sexuality these days. Some declarations barely register a blip on the media radar. But less than 20 years ago, George Michael, who died at 53 on Dec. 25, lived in a world where he still felt the need to smother his gay identity, reminding us how recent are the changes in the general public’s attitude about LGBT lives.

Michael’s repression of his sexuality — which held for the first 15 years of his career and which ended only after a scandal in 1998 — highlights the great drama of his life, as well as the poignancy. His formative suppression also inspired some of his most meaningful music. “The nature of being gay is that you are forced to challenge the general perception,” Michael told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “Maybe that gives gay men the perspective that many have turned into art. And maybe I can do that in a way that will continue to make my life constructive.”

The struggle to establish a viewpoint took decades for Michael to develop. As a public figure, he had supported gay issues long before he made his identity plain — donating proceeds from his 1991 cover of the Elton John song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to AIDS charities and performing for World AIDS Day as far back as ’93. But Michael felt compelled to bury his feelings in his teens and early 20s, falsely labeling himself bisexual to even his closest confidants while hiding any hint of his true feelings to his parents. “My depression at the end of Wham! was because I was beginning to realize I was gay, not bisexual,” he said in a 2009 interview.

Outside the spotlight, Michael developed a serious relationship with a man, Brazilian dress designer Anselmo Feleppa, in 1991. But six months later, Feleppa was diagnosed HIV positive. It was a revelation that not only caused grave concern for George about his lover but led to a whole new level of suppression within himself. “It was terrifying news,” he later said. “I didn’t know how to share it with [my family]. They didn’t even know I was gay.”

In fact, George’s family had its own deep history of camouflaging identity. His maternal grandmother was Jewish but married a Gentile and never informed her children about their true religion. She had good reason to do so. At the time, Hitler terrorized Europe. “She thought if the children didn’t know that their mother was Jewish, they wouldn’t be at risk,” Michael told the L.A. Times. When Michael finally came out to his parents in his 30s, he said his honesty threw his family “into absolute chaos, not because of my sexuality but because of the idea of truth in the family.”

Publicly, Michael only announced his sexuality after a 1998 incident in a public bathroom in L.A., where he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” with a police officer. Years later, he said that the decades of denying his identity made him feel so “fraudulent” that he viewed his arrest as “a subconsciously deliberate act.”

At the same time, that incident proved to be the catalyst for George to do more than simply come out. He added a level of righteous defiance to his declaration by featuring men, dressed as police officers, kissing each other in the video for his 1998 song “Outside.” That song’s lyrics celebrate public sex without a hint of shame. The result finally put George in step with the cultural revolution of pop stars proudly declaring their sexual orientation, a trend which began in earnest a few years earlier. In the early to mid-‘90s, stars like k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, and David Geffen made their first statements about their sexuality. Gay activists had been angry with such stars for their silence during the most hellish years of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s. But, as Corey Scholibo, an editor at the Advocate, told the L.A. Times, “the gay community, though very harsh to judge when one is in the closet, is also very quick to accept once you’re out.”

Scholibo went on to call Michael “one of the most important gay musicians.” In fact, some of his greatest songs contained coded gay messages that, retroactively, allow them to function as enduring anthems. On the surface, Michael’s smash “Freedom! ’90” expressed his need to free himself of pop star expectations, but it works just as well as a rousing ode to sexual determination. Likewise, “Jesus to a Child” captured the depth of Michael’s love for his first boyfriend, Feleppa (who died of AIDS-related causes in 1993), though he hadn’t revealed its inspiration when the song came out. “I Want Your Sex” dared to push unalloyed eroticism at a time when people equated sex with illness and death, during the height of the AIDS plague.

Back at that time, Michael felt he couldn’t talk about his own passions, yet he provided a way for others to do so — and it’s one that stirs to this day.