“There weren’t nothing strange about your daddy!” shouts an emotional Reverend Al Sharpton at Michael Jackson’s memorial recently. “It was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”
Well, come on. Of course there was something strange about Michael Jackson (and what he dealt with was strange, too). Strange people have made extremely valuable and special contributions to our society. Artistic brilliance isn’t commonplace, and is often coupled with a queer sensibility that our community could, maybe even should, embrace for lots of reasons. Michael Jackson had that sensibility, but unfortunately he also had those accusations about inappropriate conduct with young boys. If we embrace Michael Jackson as queer then the rumours about child molestation must be true, right? Obviously not, but I think people are afraid of the link. Can we posthumously embrace someone as culturally queer, whether or not the individual is explicitly queer? If so, I nominate Michael Jackson. We watched “Thriller” at Stephanie’s birthday party in the fall of Grade 2. We were all scared out of our minds, shrieking and hiding in the couch cushions. I saw it yesterday for the first time since. Not quite as scary, but twice as entertaining. My parents didn’t approve of MJ (because of the crotch grabbing), but we were all impressed with “Heal the World” at Superbowl XXVII. Michael Jackson shares a special place in my nostalgic heart along with David Bowie, Boy George, Prince and Elton John. These kinds of gender-bending men may be the only men this queer woman will ever really find attractive. As part of the six o’clock news, they were the only strange men who showed up on television in our house when I was a kid (I am definitely not queer due to over-exposure). They were all so glamourous and sparkly, so delicate in lots of ways. They seemed of another world, like drag queens and Edward Scissorhands, larger than life — the way I used to see women in pantyhose and high heels, makeup and pushup bras — but more interesting because as men they were supposed to be lower maintenance, less hip-hugging style. I often thought of Michael Jackson as Edward Scissorhands, a pretty boy with hidden genius and mental health challenges that remind me of my own, afraid of people yet drawn to display, totally on or totally off with no emotional in-between.
Our society has an unfortunate relationship with gender-bending artists. It isn’t something we encourage or celebrate. It isn’t something we revere. Unless of course the person is dead, in which case it is something we find suddenly endearing. David Bowie, Prince, Boy George have all taken a beating in the media for the way they’ve presented themselves, despite having many more newsworthy issues. Bowie was rumored to have done a Nazi salute once to his fans and called Hitler “the first pop star.” Boy George obviously struggles with a drug habit that is much more of a so-called crime than standing on stage in sequins and shit-kicker boots. Being famous is much more a curse than a blessing, especially if you’re queer, or just seem that way.
Michael Jackson’s potential issues are evident and don’t include his voice, sexual expression or gender identity, but do include mental health, racism, exploitation and, although he isn’t queer by sexuality, homophobia. The media often says Michael Jackson morphed into a white woman — high pitched voice, makeup, long hair, a more feminized face. Tons of celebrities overdo it on the plastic surgery and are criticized for it, but they aren’t deemed the freakshow Michael Jackson was because his changes were seen as gendered. Sure, there were other factors that resulted in his freak status but the media definitely would have been kinder to MJ if he had stuck to being more manly.
It seems we just can’t handle this specific brand of drama. Overtly sexual people, when packaged (pun intended) in an unusual way, or more specifically in a gender-bending way, are often inspected through a queer lens by the media. I think we as a community have to start saying, “We’ll take ’em!” instead of engaging in the debate. Certain people, for reasons sometimes hard to put a finger on, are just queer. There needs to be another category in our ridiculously long acronym of queer to identify the culturally queer: kids of queer parents, ardent PFLAGers, a myriad of artists, Judy Garland and Michael Jackson. People challenging gender roles, challenging stereotypes, living with flair that has nothing necessarily to do with who they sleep with but everything to do with sexual, and often brilliant, creative expression. They are category C queers.
The other option, of course, is to expand our definition of straight, or to obliterate male and female stereotypes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, my friend. It seems easier, for now, to open the pearly queer gates and let a few more people in.