George Michael, Flickr photo by Hans Põldoja

What George Michael Taught A Straight Single Woman About Speaking Up

[Bella’s intro: The hyping of marriage – what I call matrimania – is so relentless, it can be difficult for anyone to realize that marriage is not what they really want. I always appreciate stories of people’s unfolding understanding of what they want from their lives when the answer is not marriage. I am very grateful to Annie Hsia for sharing her own beautifully written and insightful story with us.]

Reclaiming Deviance:

What George Michael Taught A Straight Single Woman About Speaking Up

By Annie Hsia

When I was six years old, I worked as a barback in my parents’ Chinese restaurant. My mother tended bar on the weekends, and because I was the same height as the barware cabinets, she had me prep the glasses while she made drinks. I picked out the right glass (highball, martini, or tiki), filled it up with ice, and added the appropriate garnish (orange-cherry, olive, and/or paper parasol). Of all the jobs I would have at the restaurant, this would be my favorite, as it allowed for introspection and some creativity.

I had stereotypical Taiwanese immigrant parents who kept me at the restaurant nights and weekends so I could be productive every minute of the day, either studying or working. Because I was an only child, the only people I had the opportunity to socialize with were my parents’ employees. When I was on the cusp of adolescence, one of the hosts, a young gay man, showed me a tabloid article about our mutual celebrity crush, George Michael.

The article said George hadn’t always been gorgeous. He had been a bespectacled child like me, but while I was scrawny, he had been pudgy. His Greek father, like mine, was an immigrant restaurant owner who hadn’t believed in his son’s artistic talent and wanted him to choose a profession with a more certain income. George seemed to have won his freedom at the age of 20, when Wham!’s debut album, Fantastic, reached number one on the UK Albums Chart. As I, too, planned to rebel against my authoritarian father by one day writing the great American novel, I felt an affinity with George. I wanted to be with him, but I also wanted to be him.

Raised to be the prodigal son, my identity had always been androgynous. Although the great American novel has historically been a male enterprise celebrating the male experience, this didn’t deter me. Feminism was unappealing to my teen mind—first, it seemed defeatist to assume people would treat you a certain way because of body parts you did or did not have, and then it seemed fascist to expect you to have preapproved opinions about the whole thing. Why couldn’t I just seize the mantle of male agency and claim it for myself?

I saw adolescent girls trying on their new identities, and they seemed obsessed with form and surface: make-up, hair, and wardrobe. My mother had outfitted me in oversized plastic purple glasses, braces (headgear included), and ill-fitting clothes in lurid colors. Already an outsider because of my race, I desperately wanted the privileges that attended normality, but I could see that being a successful “girl” was not within my control. Always resourceful, I rebranded myself as a “person.”

Boys, I felt, appreciated my substance more. I could out-talk and out-test them in just about any subject, and the more I bested them, the more they respected me. They were able to hold their admiration for me as a person separate from their disdain of me as a girl. When they were with me, they felt free from gendered expectations, and leaked to me pieces of their inner lives that they had never told anyone else. Delighted by this, I gave them more latitude than I should have, forgetting that our alliance was based on the redaction of my femaleness. I judged girls for obsessing over form and ignored the fact that they did this because boys judged them that way.

My #1 goal in my teen years–even above writing the great American novel–was to be happily married someday. My parents had a contentious marriage, and because they worked together every day all day, there was never any room for them to work things out. I wanted the perfect family I never had. Only someone who had been deprived of freedom would truly understand what it meant, and I decided George Michael would be the perfect husband for me. It never even crossed my mind that I might not be the equal of an international superstar. In a time when almost everyone who was anyone was white, he had flaunted his Chinese girlfriend in the “I Want Your Sex” video. He was 11 years older than me, which meant he was twice my age at the time, but I figured by the time I was 21 and he was 32, the age difference would be reasonable.

By the time I was 21, I hadn’t met George Michael yet, but I did meet a man I would date off and on for more than a decade, culminating in our engagement in our early 30s. The time we were together coincided with a period when I strove to conform to societal expectations, still hopeful for the privileges that attended normality. At the end of that period, I began to miss my idealistic self and realized I couldn’t marry a man who didn’t believe in dreams and the possibility of change.

George Michael had come to a similar realization: “I think there’s something you should know/I think it’s time I told you so/There’s something deep inside of me/There’s someone else I’ve got to be.” He finally came out as gay after his arrest in L.A. for “lewd conduct” in a public restroom. He considered marriage with his long-term partner Kenny Goss, but ultimately they split up around the same time as my fiancé and me. They were in an open relationship for more than a decade, and George was notorious for frequently cottaging in Hampstead Heath.

After my fiancé and I broke up, I dated diligently for five years. An introvert, I had previously fallen into relationships with men I had known for a while, so I had no idea how to actually date, but I proactively attacked the problem as I would any other task. There were some nice, responsible men who found me kind and interesting, but something was always off.

At first, these men felt lucky that a woman who hadn’t lied in her online dating profile had suggested fun activities, paid for half the dates, and taken personal responsibility for herself. They found it refreshing not to have to do “all the work” in courtship, and my forthrightness initially provided an exotic frisson. As the relationship progressed, they couldn’t point to anything wrong, but the future looked blurry–this was not how they had envisioned coupledom. They had been educated to believe in gender equality, but were socialized with gender expectations that hadn’t changed much in the last half century. They still measured their success by job titles, home ownership, or various models of BMWs. I appreciated a generous spirit and even chivalry when it came in the form of thoughtfulness rather than ritual, but I was capable of providing for myself. What I needed was a man who could confront the truth, step out of his comfort zone, understand other people’s points of view, and strive each day to be his best self. No man I knew was interested in being my equal in that respect.

I was crestfallen over the end of a relationship when I stumbled across Mandy Catron’s essay in the New York Times “Modern Love” column. “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” described how Catron and an acquaintance made the conscious choice to fall in love with each other, inspired by a psychologist’s experiment in which two strangers fell in love simply by staring into each other’s eyes and asking each other 36 preset questions. Most people probably got out of this a self-help tip to generate more intimacy in their relationships.   

But I looked at it from another angle: intimacy can be generated non-organically, but it doesn’t mean anything unless both people intend it to mean something. Just as some people can perform a series of actions that make another person feel comfortable with physical intimacy, it’s easy for me to make people feel comfortable telling me their life stories. Used to people not listening, strangers or casual acquaintances tell me they never felt such a connection with anyone, when to me, it was a casual rather than intimate encounter. I wondered whether this meant I was emotionally promiscuous, in the way that George Michael was physically promiscuous.  

The wives of my male friends do treat me as someone or something they need to contain. They randomly audit my email messages, send my thank-you and holiday cards to the wrong house number or zip code, exclude me from events. The male friends only talk to me on their drives home from work and always end the phone conversations by saying, “I’m in my driveway now and have to go.” “Are you even allowed to talk to me?” I ask. Yes, they say, but once they go through the door, they have to give their undivided attention to their wives. Marriage is often about ownership, as if a person can be possessed.

What the wives don’t know is that, when men open up to me, often what they show me is how much they love their wives: “I never traveled before I met her,” or “she taught me how to cook,” or “no one else has ever made me feel so loved.” Rarely does a male friend ever complain about his wife to me, because he knows I’m a person of principle, and that I don’t want to be her, to be married, or to have children.

I know there is an abiding love that comes from weathering the years together. I have that bond with my ex-fiancé. I still love him, and he still loves me–platonically. His love for his wife does not preclude him from loving me in a different way. Love is not finite.

George Michael wrote two songs about freedom. In the first, he sang, “I don’t want your freedom/I don’t want to play around.” But in the second, he declared, “All we have to do now/Is take these lies/And make them true somehow/All we have to see/Is that I don’t belong to you/And you don’t belong to me.” Like me, he used to be a monogamy purist, but later he wants to find a new way forward.

Until George Michael’s death, I never focused on how hard it must have been for him to come out. His cruising was foreign to me; I didn’t relate. I’ve been celibate for almost five years now, and sometimes I feel a melodramatic affinity to medieval virgins like St. Lucia, who poked her eyes out rather than marry a man—a sacrifice of the body to save the soul. But as Fenton Johnson noted in his Harper’s essay “Going It Alone,” “[c]elibacy and libertinism are antipodes, opposing poles that define desire. They are more similar than different, and both are practiced by people of great longing.” After reading countless op-eds describing how George Michael embodied the LGBT struggles of his generation, I realized I’ve been making incremental attempts to come out as well, even though I’m not gay.

I reject marriage as the framework by which everyone–even those who choose not to participate in the institution–must relate to each other. There are other ways of relating that better accommodate our natural yearning for the multi-layered social connections that strengthen the fabric of our communities. The oversimplified strictures and taboos of marriage falsely relieve a person of the need to examine his or her personal limits of giving and receiving trust in a complex and nuanced world.

As a person who might never marry, I felt deviant and defiant when Justice Kennedy delivered the Supreme Court’s opinion on gay marriage, writing, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” I often see a selfish turning inward in marriage, a devotion only to family. When George Michael died, so many people came forward to share stories of his acts of generosity towards strangers; he had the time and focus to give selflessly to the community because he didn’t have a spouse or children. He volunteered anonymously at a homeless shelter, and although the heteronormative world didn’t always support him, he donated millions of dollars to children’s charities and gave one woman £50,000 for IVF treatments.

In an interview in The Believer, feminist writer Vivian Gornick said, “We knew we were not liberated and were never going to be liberated. But we knew what liberation was…To feel you were the agent of your life–you were not sitting by the telephone waiting for something to happen.” She said some things seem like choices in the moment, but are really just responses, decisions as to what you can and cannot live with, rather than bona fide choices. She didn’t choose to be separated from men, but she can live with being single, whereas she wasn’t able to live with her previous role as a wife.

The press has depicted George Michael as a man who made bad choices: he took drugs, he had sex with strangers. But maybe he was just trying his best to respond to the life he was given. To live and love the best he could, to try to be free of societal prejudices and preconceptions.

My parents showed me what I could accomplish with hard work, but George Michael showed me what I can accomplish with passion. His accomplishments didn’t bring him the freedom he desired, but he kept his heart open and continued to engage with the world. I’m sorry he didn’t get everything he wanted in life. I may not get everything I want either, but I gotta have faith.

[From Bella, again: Thanks, Annie, for this wonderful essay. To readers: You may also appreciate this guest post, “Coming out as single-at-heart.”]

About the Author

Annie Hsia is a writer currently focusing on issues of gender and marital status equality. She would like to remind readers that, even though unmarried and childfree people are often made to feel deviant, only around 20% of Americans live in the 20th Century nuclear family format. She believes that all relationships—not just romantic or procreative ones—deserve loyalty and commitment, and that each person deserves the same rights and benefits under the law, regardless of marital status.

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