(Originally posted at The Gay-Atheist, just so you know.)
I remember a conversation I had with my grandfather, a wonderful man who unfortunately was not free of many of the prejudices typical of his generation. I was thirteen, and the first child molestation charges against Michael Jackson had surfaced from Los Angeles. Pap and I talked often about all kinds of things — politics, TV, music, what was happening in the world. Somehow the subject of Jackson came up and Pap shook his head and said, “If he’s not gay, then neither is anyone that ever was born.”
Pap had no special expertise with which to judge the sexuality of someone he’d never met or even paid much attention to outside of seeing him in the news, but he was far from the only one to think Michael Jackson was something other than a heterosexual. Since his death on June 25, speculation about Jackson’s sexual orientation has been mostly quiet and indirect, but still very present in the inescapable media coverage leading up to tomorrow’s memorial service. A few blogs I’ve read recently, including this one by bert5, have figured the hell with delicacy and are just coming out and saying it. “It seems obvious to me,” bert5 writes, “that Michael Jackson was a closeted gay man.”
Is it really that obvious? Jackson always seemed embarrassed by the subject of sex (outside of his music, anyway — more on that in a minute), so I guess “closeted” isn’t out of the question. What disturbs me a little is that so many people, gay and straight writers alike, seem to be interpreting his flamboyance, effeminate voice and androgynous appearance as obvious evidence that he was homosexual.
Sure, some gay men do seem to conform to that old stereotype. “A little light in the loafers,” people from my grandfather’s generation used to say (when they felt like being polite about it). But even in my limited experience here in staunchly homophobic Washington County, Maryland, I’ve met gay men who were anything but effeminate. I’ve met gay dudes who could have kicked my straight ass from one end of town to the other without breaking a sweat, just as I’ve met straight guys who didn’t fit the popular conception of masculinity. It isn’t always obvious what someone’s sexuality is by their style or their bearing or their build or how they talk. You can’t always tell. So why are so many people comfortable jumping to any conclusions about Michael Jackson?
Listening to his music, it seems obvious to me that the guy was all about pussy. The only place he ever seemed to loosen up about sex was in the music. Onstage, singing the songs and busting the moves that made him the most successful entertainer in history, he seemed utterly uninhibited, grinding and grabbing his crotch, almost always singing about a girl. Some of his best-known songs — “Rock With You”, “The Way You Make Me Feel”, “Remember the Time” — are all about trying to get off with a chick. In “Billie Jean” his popularity with the ladies catches up to him, as a former conquest shows up with a baby she claims is his. In “Dirty Diana” he struggles to resist an especially persistent groupie, and in “Give In to Me” he demands that his woman knock off the bullshit and just “quench my desire.”
He didn’t write every song he recorded, and even if he did I guess he still could have been trying to misdirect us, hiding his homosexuality by singing so much about the girls. Or maybe he figured he’d sell more records singing love songs straight folks could relate to. And hey, what about “Beat It”? (Not every song was about sex and chasing women — he wasn’t Prince, for Christ’s sake) “Beat It” was all about being the bigger man and walking away from a fight. No self-respecting heterosexual could ever believe such a thing.
There is another possibility: Michael Jackson was straight. I know, right? It’s a pretty radical suggestion. Leaving the obvious heterosexuality of his music aside for the moment, let’s remember that the few times he directly addressed the issue, he denied that he was gay. There’s also the private testimony of his first wife, Lisa Marie Presley. She says their sex life was pretty great. He had some weird proclivities, like only wearing women’s perfume, and never wanting anyone, even his wife, to see him without his make-up on, but according to Lisa Marie he was also “hot stuff in bed” and they apparently spent most of their marriage in the sack.
Could he have been bisexual, then? Sure he could have been. If you believe Alfred Kinsey, almost everybody is bisexual to some degree. Whether or not Michael Jackson was actively bisexual is another question. Celebrity journalist Ian Halperin, who has written an unauthorized biography of Jackson, claims to have spoken to two of his male lovers, including one man who claims that Jackson was in love with him and that the two of them were close for many years, even up to Jackson’s death.
Obviously I could be wrong, but I tend to doubt Halperin’s claims. Michael Jackson was the most famous man in the world. If he were actively having sex with other men, I think we’d have heard publicly from one or two of them by this point. Have you heard anything? Can you tell me the name of one of Michael Jackson’s boyfriends? ‘Cause I can tell you the name of two of Abraham Lincoln’s, and that was like a hundred and fifty years ago.
So the question is “Was Michael Jackson gay?” I think “No” would be a correct answer to that question. But it isn’t the best answer. The best answer is “No, but so what if he was?” If he was gay, he obviously felt for whatever reason that it was his own business. If he was gay, it doesn’t make the child molestation charges that dogged him for the last fifteen years of his life any more likely to be true. If he was gay, it changes almost nothing else we already know about him. So why the fascination with his sexuality? Why do some persist in asking the question? Why are some so eager to conclude that he was gay? Maybe for the same reasons Pap was so sure about it all those years ago — because it would affirm our prejudices. Because a long-haired, slight, ostentatiously attired guy with a high voice, who wears jewelry and make-up and likes to hang out with little boys just has to be gay, doesn’t he?
No more than an astronaut or a baseball player or a soldier has to be straight. But maybe that’s why Michael Jackson, with his style and his behavior, constantly seemed to be begging the question, hoping in vain that eventually we’d start to get the point.