A two-part documentary airing on the UK’s Channel 4 this week aims to reconsider the role of the British press in outing George Michael.
In George Michael: Outed, director Michael Ogden examines how the “Faith” singer was relentlessly questioned about his sexuality, even before his 1998 arrest for performing “a lewd act” with another man in a Los Angeles public restroom. As part of his research, Ogden revisited tabloid coverage of the arrest.
“It was really fascinating, because the language is really horrible and the way it’s written is really horrible, and it’s really judgmental,” Ogden told PinkNews. “And it’s all because George got his d**k out in a toilet. I thought that was ridiculous.”
The documentary focuses on Michael’s ultimate defiance and the trail he blazed for out pop stars like Will Young and Olly Alexander. But it’s also an indictment of the recklessness with which the press treated outing people in the 80s and 90s , when stigma around HIV and AIDS was at its height. Ogden interviewed other gay men who were outed in the media as well as former tabloid journalists who reported on Michael’s arrest as if it were just another sex scandal.
“My argument was that it’s very different, because the attitudes towards gay people in the ‘80s, particularly around HIV and AIDS, were pretty violent,” Ogden said. “I imagined being gay then it probably could have felt like you were at war because your very being is being questioned.”
“It’s about the language used, isn’t it?” Ogden said. “Because it’s all about shame. And the language about how being gay is seen as a shameful act. That was always there with the AIDS crisis, it was a moral judgement made against gay people.”
To Ogden, not much has changed since the late 90s when it comes to the British press’s treatment of LGBTQ+ celebrities. He also draws a connection between the moral panic around queer people in the 90s and transgender people now.
“Our film is not a film about trans lives, but it’s a film about all queer lives, in a way. We were cognizant of that, and wanted to make sure that you didn’t feel this was just history, and that actually, this is a lesson for now,” he explained.
“Sadly, you look at what’s happening in the press about trans lives. You look at what’s happening with the potential SNP leader in Scotland who didn’t agree with gay marriage. Our freedoms are not easily won and they’re fragile.”