When George Michael died on Sunday, the world lost not only a prolific singer, but a gay icon — a man who proudly owned his sexuality after being outed 18 years ago when an undercover police officer discovered him having sex in a bathroom. At the time, the Sun reportedly ran the crass headline "Zip Me Up Before You Go Go" on its front page, riffing on one of Michael's greatest hits.
From that point on, Michael embraced his identity, debuting "Outside," a hit the Guardian recently called "the biggest 'fuck you' in musical history" for its overtly sexual overtones, and supporting initiatives to fight HIV, the illness that led to his partner's death in 1993.
The singer has gone on the record about his sexuality countless times, but among his most memorable is a clip from a 2004 interview with Oprah Winfrey about his album Patience.
"Are you worried about American fans, now, even with this new album, accepting you as a gay artist?" Winfrey asks.
Michael begins to answer before interrupting himself: "I have to be totally straightforward," he replies. "I'm not really interested in selling records to people who are homophobic."
He goes on, referring to his then-partner Kenny Goss when he says, "I live with a man I love dearly; I have more love and success and security in my life than I could've ever dreamed. So I really don't need the approval of people who don't approve of me."
Michael may have nailed the answer to Winfrey's question, but the real beauty in this moment is that it doesn't happen too often anymore. Because of Michael, and icons like him, it's increasingly rare for gay singers to be asked whether Americans will accept them or their art. And when celebrities at-large came out in 2016, it was without fanfare or shouts of "scandal."
Michael is, in part, to thank.
Many people did thank him: Following his death, Twitter users shared their personal experiences with his music and how it paved the way for their own self-acceptance.
"RIP George Michael and thank you for making it easier for future generations of LGBT people to be 'out' in public," Liam Hackett, founder and CEO of anti-bullying organization Ditch the Label, wrote in a tweet on Sunday.
Robbie de Santos, the head of campaigns at the UK's Stonewall branch similarly wrote, "You soundtracked so many moments, and your visibility and pride helped '90s LGBT kids like me realize we weren't alone."