The intellectualization of Michael Jackson as icon starts in earnest today with The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als' queer theory read on his career in The New York Review of Books. The only problem is, Jackson wasn't gay.
Als' fascinating argument is that Jackson's otherness was formed because he was gay, but couldn't express it because of his religious mother, domineering father, and the homophobia that exists in the black community.
In black urban centers across the US, where Jesus is still God, men who cannot conform to the culture's edicts-adopting a recognizably heterosexual lifestyle, along with a specious contempt for the spoils of white folk-are ostracized, or worse; being "out" is a privilege many black gay men still cannot afford.
Of course, this isn't the first time that anyone has called Jackson gay, but it's entirely different to base an entire article on the assumption that he was. Creative manifestations of his homosexuality, according to Als, include his turn as an "effete" scarecrow in The Wiz, his Judy Garland-esque costume for the Victory Tour, and, of course, everything having to do with him and gay icon Diana Ross.
And there were the songs he wrote for women-early idols like Diana Ross or his older sister, Rebbie-songs that expressed what he could never say about his own desire. "She said she wants a guy/To keep her satisfied/But that's alright for her/But it ain't enough for me," Jackson wrote in the 1982 Diana Ross hit song "Muscles." The song continues: "Still, I don't care if he's young or old/(Just make him beautiful).... I want muscles/All over his body."
Or, maybe he was just, you know, writing a pop song. What we know about Jackson's sexuality doesn't seem to point to the fact that he was actually gay. He was married to women more than once (not that he would be the first 'mo to wear a wedding ring, but...) and that he had some inappropriate relationships with young boys. Just because the victims of his alleged abuse were male does not mean that he had desire for grown men.
So, please stop saying that Michael Jackson was gay. Though gay couples are allowed to marry in several states and homosexuals are flouncing all over mainstream culture more readily these days does not mean it is accepted by a majority of the population, and we don't need any negative role models. After all, Harry Homophobe isn't going to say, "Wow, that gay Michael Jackson wrote 'Billie Jean' and that song rocks. Gays are so wonderful and creative" he's going to think, "Wow, that gay Michael Jackson was so gay that he had to touch little boys and try to make them gay. Gays are disgusting." The last thing we need is to re-convince people that gay men are not child molesters.
It's unfortunate that Als had to push his argument to including Jackson's sexuality, because he was clearly "queer" in the sense that he was a figure that lived outside of society's typical edicts about race, class, culture, and sexuality. He was a "freak" (even Als concedes that fact) and was treated as such.
However, his freakishness may have come from many places—his unnatural celebrity at a young age, the public scrutiny he lived under, living under the contradiction of his church-going mother and his Hollywood father—but it didn't come from being gay.