Jeordie Shenton (Tonic Rider Coordinator) writes about navigating gay sexuality and identity within the music industry to mark LGBT+ History Month.
The 13th July 1985, Live Aid, was a day of many iconic moments: Bono jumping into the crowd, Bob Geldof swearing on national TV, and Phil Collins performing at Wembley and the JFK Stadium on the same day. Another iconic moment, too often overlooked, was the first and only time Elton John, Freddie Mercury and George Michael shared a stage. Although this was to perform ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ (along with about a hundred other artists) and not anything remotely close to a gay anthem, three of the most influential gay musicians were singing in front of 72,000 people, watched at home by 1.9 billion worldwide - however, very few, if anyone, knew this as the greatest music spectacle came to a close.
1985 was the year improved LGBT+ rights and visibilities were not only undone but reversed due to widespread fear and misinformation around HIV (the Human Immunodeficiency Virus formerly known as ‘gay-related immune deficiency’ and even more shockingly in some early reports: “gay disease”, “gay cancer” and “gay plague”). At the time, neither Elton John, Freddie Mercury or George Michael had publicly identified as being gay, yet all three were subject to press speculation about their sexuality to various degrees. In the years that followed, each of them navigated the relationship between gay sexuality and identity with the music industry very differently.
Nine years prior to Live Aid, Elton John publicly identified as bisexual in an interview with Rolling Stone, by saying “There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex. I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a bad thing to be.” Following this, he was in a heterosexual marriage, which lasted four years until a divorce in 1988. The first time Elton John publicly identified as gay was in another interview with Rolling Stone, by saying “I’m quite comfortable being gay.” Since then, he has been civilly partnered and eventually married to David Furnish, along with being an advocate for LGBT+ communities across the world.
Coincidentally (or not), Freddie Mercury was also asked questions about his sexuality nine years prior to Live Aid, in an interview with NME, replying "There were times when I was young and green. It's a thing schoolboys go through. I've had my share of schoolboy pranks. I'm not going to elaborate further." When probed on this, however, he replied "I'm as gay as a daffodil, my dear!" While some commentators perceived expressions of gay sexuality in his performances, Freddie Mercury never publicly identified as gay or bisexual. Privacy was seemingly important to him, as highlighted by making no public disclosure of a positive HIV status until the day before his death.
Possibly due to changes in societal attitudes, George Michael was rarely questioned about his sexuality in published interviews. This was until being outed in 1998 when he was arrested for a 'lewd act' in public, with The Sun carrying the headline 'Zip Me Up Before You Go Go'. A few days later, George Michael publicly identified as gay in an interview with CNN, in which he stated "I have not been exposed as a gay man in any way that I feel - I don't feel any shame for." Emphasising a previous desire for privacy regarding his sexuality, he later suggested on BBC Radio 4 in 2007, the 'lewd act' was 'subconsciously deliberate' to be outed.
The lived experiences of Elton John, Freddie Mercury and George Michael, three of the most influential gay musicians, represent different navigations of gay sexuality and identity within the music industry. Elton John had agency in publicly identifying as gay and likewise Freddie Mercury by not, whilst for George Michael agency was regained (or maybe never lost) with his response to being outed. Musicians are often in the spotlight, their private lives scrutinised, song lyrics analysed, which generates plenty of speculation around sexuality and identity.
This is an amazing time for music with so many LGBT+ artists receiving airplay, topping the charts and headlining festivals: Years & Years, Arlo Parks, Sam Smith, Anohni, Lil Nas X, Courtney Barnett, Frank Ocean, just to name a few. But as Olly Alexander (Years & Years) told The Independent - “There’s entrenched homophobia at all levels of the music industry.” Being pressured to disclose sexuality, or conversely, hide sexuality, has a significant effect on mental health. Too often, LGBT+ musicians have to navigate these pressures. As the lived experiences of Elton John, Freddie Mercury and George Michael highlight, the individual choice of publicly identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or any sexuality, should always be respected.
Jeordie Shenton (Tonic Rider Coordinator)
Article originally published on this blog on 14/02/22