I'd posted the following to Facebook in the wee hours of December 26, 2016, shortly after hearing that Wham! vocalist George Michael had died.
My love for George Michael came from my mother, thanks to her adoration of "I Want Your Sex." If she were on Facebook to see me say this, she'd be mortified and say "Oh, Allison," but she wouldn't be able to deny it.
Sure, I'd loved Wham! as a kid, but I paid a lot more attention to music and to videos around the time he went solo, and I very clearly remember my mom singing along and becoming so animated when "I Want Your Sex" came on the radio. At that age, I cringed when I heard anything at all having to do with sex or coupling or even kissing; it felt like these were pieces of adult life that occasionally accidentally slipped through and that I should cover my kid ears for it. Plus, you know, hearing "sex" in any capacity was pretty embarrassing, even if it was a socially acceptable message about monogamy.
I don't know if Mom sang along so contentedly because she loved that message, because because she had liked Wham!, because George was cute or just because it was a good piece of pop music, but the change was there. She probably didn't even realize she was singing along and dancing in her seat as she drove. But with those synths, it was admittedly impossible to not be at least a little compelled to shake your hips with the song.
Of course, it wasn't until later that I realized that George was gay (much later than when other people learned via his public announcement or their previous assumptions; honestly, my gaydar wasn't and isn't that great). In subsequent years, I learned about more performers of all types who were gay or who didn't classify themselves traditionally. To someone who didn't grow up with much personal exposure to that (our town was small and rural, and generally people weren't out publicly there at the time), it was a revelation to think about love and attraction from a different perspective.
I think that's one of the biggest tragedies in this dumpster fire of a year -- that people who challenged our notion of "normal" for my generation have died. Bowie. Prince. Now George Michael. So many more. They had given "permission" to so many people to embrace the full self, to both legitimize and dismantle "otherness," to refuse the molds that society had set up for them. In so many ways, they said "I'm ok, and you're ok, too." Sure, we'll keep expressing shock and resignation as our generation's cultural touchstones pass away, but collectively, these people are worth the mourning. They've represented identities and awareness that simply weren't available to many before, and children and adults alike found some solace and peace in that.
But as we look ahead to what may come in the upcoming era of more threats, more dehumanizing, more "othering," George Michael's death -- along with Bowie's and Prince's -- is especially cruel. The cultural change agents are passing away, and the remaining ones who showcase the beautiful identity possibilities will have to shoulder more burden.