On 7 April 1998, George Michael was arrested in a public toilet at Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills. He had been caught by a plainclothes police officer performing “a lewd act” on another man.
The Wham! front man was fined $810 and sentenced to 80 hours of community service, but that wasn’t the last of it. The story exploded in the media and attempted to make a mockery of the singer.
One UK tabloid broke the story on their front page with the headline “Zip Me Up Before You Go-Go”, while others spent weeks dissecting and going over and over the scandal.
It was at a time when attitudes towards homosexuality were very different than they were today. 1998 was only three years after new types of drugs and therapy had been available to treat HIV and the stigmatised association between AIDS and homosexuality was still very much a real thing.
In the years before the 1998 scandal hit, celebrities were already being publicly outed in the press under the guise of the “public interest”. Footballer Justin Fashanu, came out in a front page tell-all with The Sun newspaper in 1990 and faced immense backlash and crowd abuse in the years afterwards.
Three days after George’s arrest in Beverly Hills, the singer appeared on CNN where he chose to publicly come out. During the interview, the then 34-year-old told presenter Jim Moret: “I want to say that I have no problem with people knowing that I’m in a relationship with a man right now.
I’m a very proud man. I want people to know that I have not been exposed as a gay man in any way that I feel … I don’t feel any shame for. I feel stupid and I feel reckless and weak for having allowed my sexuality to be exposed this way, but I don’t feel any shame whatsoever. And neither do I think I should.”
How George Michael responded to his arrest and the subsequent sensationalism of the scandal is at the centre of a two-part documentary which aired on Channel 4. “George Michael: Outed” showed how the media portrayed George at the time, alongside interviews with LGBT+ celebrities and those who knew George at the time, including former partner Kenny Goss.
It hit hard with a lot of viewers. One person tweeted after watching the show: “It’s utterly heartbreaking. A reminder how homophobic the tabloids were and how gay men were vilified during the 80’s especially.”
Another said: “Watching #georgemichaelouted and seeing how the press outed gay men and what they wrote about the aids situation and gay men as a whole makes me feel physically sick. Who in their right mind thought that it was ok to out people and write such vile things about them?”
One scene saw Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander read through some of the newspaper headlines and reports at the time. One, for example, suggested George should have been ‘honest’ about his sexuality from the beginning.
“You can’t win,” Olly remarked. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And it’s very telling for someone, who I presume isn’t gay, to go ‘You should have done this, and if you’d done this maybe we would have reacted in a different way’.”
Tabloid journalists were also interviewed in the documentary. Neil Wallis, former Deputy Editor of The Sun and The News Of The World, seemed non-phased about the treatment George received at the time saying that celebrity scandals “sell newspapers”.
“All great celebrity stories are essentially about hypocrisy,” he says on screen. “Someone who appears to the public to be this and yet they’re leading a double life which means they’re really this. And the great tabloid hit is stripping away this facade and showing the truth.”
And as for that “zip me up” story in 1998? Neil described it as a “great headline”. He remarked: “Great page one. It’s not exactly, ‘God we should send him to hell this evil man.’ It was laugh-out-loud ridiculous.”
Ultimately, the scandal worked in George’s favour despite many fearing it would end his career. He would later say that “as subconscious plans go, it was pretty successful”.
George would go on to reclaim the narrative with the release of his next single “Outside”. The now-infamous music video for the track sees George play the role of a police officer as he kisses another officer in a bathroom. It was provocative and it was loud and there was certainly no shying away from it after that.
Singer Will Young told filmmakers: “To see someone flip the script and go, Yeah, I’m really proud of this … He was really unique.”
But the documentary shows that anti-LGBT+ attitudes in the media have long been, and still are, borderline obsessive and intrusive. We saw it only last year when Rebel Wilson revealed she was forced to come out after a newspaper threatened to reveal her relationship with girlfriend Ramona Agruma.
“I’ve always hoped that people get an understanding about what it’s like to come out, but also the idea that things may have moved on, but really, they haven’t,” director Michael Ogen told Esquire about the documentary.
“We’re not in a great place and we need to defend those rights and we need allies to help us defend those rights. There’s a comment in the film about how people like George and others were crucified in the press, and I want people to take away from the film that this is not just history; it’s a lesson.”
Loving: A Photographic History
Long resigned to living our lives in secret, behind closed doors, the extent of LGBT+ history that is untold and undocumented is unfathomable.
But thanks to projects like the documentary 100 Years Of Men In Love: The Accidental Collection, some of those stories are coming to light, photograph by photograph.
Inspired by a book of the same name, 100 Years Of Men In Love gives audiences a closer look at photography archives of married couple Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell, a selection of found portraits of men from the 1850s to the 1950s.
During that time, male partnerships were often deemed illegal, so the images of (assumed) gay men together – loving, laughing, cuddling, smiling – feels especially radical.
Nini and Treadwell’s collection was deemed “accidental” because they never really thought they were collecting anything. Over the years, they simply began holding onto any image they could find of men showing affection for one another.
With each visit to an antique shop or a flea market, their collection grew and grew, and the couple eventually realised they needed to share it with the world.
Filmmaker David Millbern tells Nini and Treadwell’s story – as well as those of hundreds of gay couples that came before them – in his hour-long documentary. Speaking with Awards Daily, he remarks that the film is more than just a montage: “We actually go into each picture, we analyze it, we escape into it.”
Later in the conversation, Millbern elaborates on why these photos – some of which are over 150 years old – matter now, and why the seem to connect so deeply with audiences: “People are responding to the love, the love that is captured at a time when these men could have been put in prison or lost their entire livelihood. They could have ruined their lives. Yet they felt their love mattered so much that they wanted to capture it. Little did they know those photos would survive and their love would be basically a call to action … The ability to love freely whoever we choose is basically resting on the shoulders of those who showed us the way.”
In these dark times, a film like100 Years Of Men In Love reminds us what we’re fighting for. What we’ve been fighting for.
After playing film festivals, the film made its official premiere last year, and now streams exclusively on premium LGBT+ network Here TV.
You can check out the film’s trailer below: