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21 December 2018

How George Michael’s “Last Christmas” captures the loneliness of living in the closet

Wham! released the iconic song in 1984. It would be another 14 years before Michael publicly came out as gay. 

By Louis Staples

Christmas is a time when memories are imprinted on us for life: the smell of clementine and pine trees, the taste of mince pies and the sound of your parents arguing over whether the roast potatoes are sufficiently crispy. As we gather each year to sip prosecco and play Articulate! through the slow burn of acid reflux, the songs of Christmas form a part of our musical memory. Everyone has a favourite, from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” to The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”.

As a gay man, the 1984 Wham! classic “Last Christmas” will always hold a special place in my heart. Two years ago, on Christmas Day, LGBT+ people lost one of our most fearless and outspoken icons when singer George Michael died at the age of 53. One year on, in 2017, a campaign to get Michael’s Christmas hit to number one saw “Last Christmas” climb to a UK chart peak of number two, so I’m not alone in remembering him at this time of year.

Though Michael’s death, amid ongoing personal struggles, is merely the white sugary icing in the layered Christmas cake of reasons why I find “Last Christmas” sentimental. To me, it is by far the queerest mainstream festive song.

Michael was closeted at the time of recording both the song and video; it would be another 14 years before he publicly came out as gay in 1998. The video sees him pining after a female love interest, who “gave” his heart away in favour of another man at Christmas. The lyrics, interestingly, are slightly more ambiguous, simply stating that his unrequited love had chosen another man over him rather than explicitly referencing their gender.

“Last Christmas” is unusual in the fact that it is an extremely sad Christmas song. Most festive tunes are about happy memories, living in the moment or finding love. But given the context it was written in, with Michael hiding his sexuality from the public, it is difficult not to equate his closetedness with the song’s lyrics of heartbreak and rejection.

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The announcement that Michael was gay occurred as a result of an arrest by undercover police in California, when he was found engaging in a “lewd act” with another man in a public bathroom in 1998. In 2006, he was again accused of engaging in public sex, this time in London. Lots of people, particularly closeted gay men, partake in anonymous cruising – even now. By then, Michael had frequently embraced his sexuality, saying publicly that he was happy being gay. After his 2006 arrest, he refused to apologise and stated that that his long-term partner Kenny Goss didn’t mind him cruising for sex with strangers.

Yet against a backdrop of substance issues, drug-fuelled accidents and arrests, this type of behaviour was perhaps an indication that, like many LGBT+ people, Michael was not as at ease with himself as he appeared. In a 2007 interview, he described keeping his sexuality secret as a “nightmare”. He later admitted that his late twenties he had been very depressed after losing his partner, designer Anselmo Feleppa, to an AIDS-related illness in 1993. Still closeted, he was unable to discuss the loss publicly.

According to the British Social Attitudes survey, in 1998 – the year Michael came out publicly – four in ten British people said that same-sex relationships were “always” wrong, compared to just 23 per cent who said they are “not wrong at all”. Section 28 continued to silence discussion of homosexuality in schools, and gay sex remained criminalised under a higher age of consent and bans on group sex and photographing sex. That year, seven men in Bolton were convicted of having sex together and filming it, with five receiving community service and two being given suspended jail sentences. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how even a successful person like Michael, under the glare of the media spotlight, could have suffered from low self-worth or feelings of inadequacy.

To me, this is the essence of what “Last Christmas” is really about: not feeling good enough. This could manifest in not feeling good enough for a person, such as a romantic partner or family member, but LGBT+ people may also associate this dynamic with wider heteronormative society and project these feelings onto themselves.

Despite being a glittery, camp spectacle, the implicit straightness of Christmas means that it can be a difficult time for LGBT+ people. Many of us return to places we don’t visit often and are forced to confront memories and relationships from childhood, not all of which are rosy. Some LGBT+ people re-closet themselves at Christmas, particularly around elderly relatives, leading to awkward interactions. If you feel like you don’t fit in with the people you grew up with, it can be a hailstorm of reminders.

In 2018, gifts are still overwhelmingly marketed around traditional gender norms. The video that Lewis Hamilton was widely criticised for sharing last year on Christmas Day, which showed him shaming his young nephew for wearing a princess dress he was gifted, exemplifies that, even today, Christmas can be a minefield if you don’t conform to these norms.

The two main pillars of Christmas – faith and family – are institutions that heteronormative society has tried to keep LGBT+ people locked out of for years. Even now, after decades of fighting for our seat at the table, many of us feel shameful or uncomfortable when navigating these spaces.

Of course I am not suggesting that Christmas is homophobic. But even the secular culture that surrounds it – from Mr and Mrs Clause, to films like It’s a Wonderful Life and newer classics like Love Actually and The Holiday – solely explores heterosexual love. In recent years we’ve come a long way in terms of queer representation in music, film and entertainment. Yet Christmas represents a particular nostalgia, embodied in its popular culture, to a “simpler time” when LGBT+ people weren’t included or widely accepted.

The ongoing “debate” over the appropriateness of the word “faggot” in “Fairytale of New York” is emotive because it is just another example of how Christmas festivities often feel like a space that, rather than welcoming or celebrating us, we are merely tolerated within – providing we respect its implicit heterosexuality.

Not everyone will share my queer interpretation of “Last Christmas”. But before Michael’s death, a script for Last Christmas – a “holiday romance set in London” co-written by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings – was developed with his participation. In an interview with Radio Times, Kimmings said that her draft of the script included the kind of “queer politics” that Michael was interested in and even contained trans characters.

Even after Michael’s death, “Last Christmas” is the gift that keeps on giving. When he sings: “A face on a lover with a fire in his heart, A man under cover but you tore me apart”, he offers a glimpse into a narrative I understand and can participate in. “Last Christmas” tells me that it’s OK if Christmas isn’t perfect, but also that giving your heart to “someone special” requires a belief that you are worthy of love. To so many of us, but particularly LGBT+ people at Christmas, that feels like a radical message.

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