Like many teenage males in my small Virginia town, I initially had a problem with Boy George. But, true to form, my particular problem was... different.
I didn't scoff at George because he looked or acted "too gay." On the contrary, he wasn't gay enough.
Kissing to Be Clever took me by surprise. Staring up from my local record store's new releases bin, George's plaited hair and exaggerated makeup prompted me to briefly mistake Culture Club's debut for a new release by art rocker Lene Lovich.
I showed the purple-and-yellow album cover to my friend Sebastian. "When did Brooke Shields make a record?" he asked.
The idea of Culture Club, with its mix of people (black, white, Jewish, Irish Catholic) and influences (reggae, calypso, soul), sounded revolutionary. Drummer Jon Moss had played with the Damned and Adam and the Ants, and George boasted ties to former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
Alas, Kissing to Be Clever underwhelmed. But Boy George's eye-popping maquillage and androgynous attire inspired me. As the gender bender's fame increased, so did my fashion risks. On one occasion, I rolled into first period geometry wearing most of my costume from The Mikado.
More than just a pretty face, George gave great interviews, too. Razor-witted yet rarely bitchy, he preached love, tolerance, and acceptance. Even Joan Rivers liked him! Humor had already saved me from many scrapes, and Culture Club's international popularity signaled that my skills could help carry me to international renown.
But time and again, one message remained conspicuous in its absence: George's glistening lips never formed the words "I'm gay." Instead, he told us that he'd loved men and women, nonstop work precluded romance, and he preferred a nice cup of tea to sex any day.
I wanted more. Selfish, I admit. I'd come out of the closet to my friends and immediate family after a heated discussion with Sebastian about our gym class locker buddies. Through theater and music, I met supportive LGBTQ adults who helped me accept who I was. But my parents warned that my disclosure would ruin my life.
To my amazement, jocks began to back off when I challenged their queer-baiting antics in front of classmates. The violence and cruelty that'd characterized my first two years of high school dropped off once I said, "I'm gay." Life got better. Why the hell couldn't Boy George do it, too?
Culture Club sold millions of records worldwide. George even made the cover of Newsweek, and I have no doubt such unprecedented visibility helped many closeted or questioning kids find their own identities. I wanted him to stop dodging the topic and help me prove my parents wrong. In a world with almost no openly gay role models, George's silence felt like confirmation that my voice didn't matter, either.
George wasn't the sole offender in the 1980s, just the most popular. Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys), and George Michael (Wham!) also danced around the question. Morrissey dithered on about celibacy while slapping pictures of male nudes and Truman Capote on Smiths album sleeves.
In 1984, Culture Club won best new artist at the Grammy Awards. "Thanks, America, you've got style, you've got taste, and you know a good drag queen when you see one," winked George. Ah, the pithy quip, lingua franca of gay men everywhere. Boy George calling himself a "drag queen" spoke volumes to me, but it breezed right past Mom and Dad.
These were troubling times for LGBTQ music lovers seeking community leaders. "I had and have nothing against camp, but there are times like these when it is simply inappropriate and even dishonest," writes John Gill in his 1995 anthology Queer Noises. "At a time when gay men were beginning to die in the thousands, did we really want to perpetuate outdated marginal images which only enabled homophobes to disempower queers even more?"
Like Gill, I felt more affinity for openly queer trio Bronski Beat, but Culture Club wielded far greater influence. I continued to pray they would eventually prove as edgy as I'd first imagined. Occasionally they came close; the Motown stomp and wailing harmonica of "Church of the Poison Mind" still thrills. But whatever hopes remained that the quartet might bloom into Generation Benetton's answer to the Clash withered once "The War Song" unfurled in billows of "It's a Small World" sentimentality and padded-shoulder cynicism.
Admiring Boy George grew easier after Culture Club collapsed amid his drug troubles. The determination of certain judges, politicians, and media outlets to make an example of the singer infuriated me. It still does. Every time I see that 2006 photo of him picking up trash as part of his community service for a false burglary report, it stings like those anonymous taunts of "faggot" from passing pickup trucks back in my sleepy hometown.
His initial solo recordings still played it safe. His 1987 cover of Bread's "Everything I Own" resurrected "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," a pleasant reggae groove buoying up its lyrical vulnerability. But who could blame him? People may root for the underdog, but when it comes down to crunch time, we prefer to be on the winning side. "Everything" went number one in the UK.
Finally, as the message that Silence = Death spread, George raised his voice for LGBTQ rights. His 1988 club track "No Clause 28" decried UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the amendment she'd introduced to prohibit local governments from the promotion of homosexuality as normal, healthy behavior. Topical lyrics limited the song's impact on audiences beyond Great Britain, but finicky faggots like me nevertheless cheered George's dance-floor activism.
The solo successes continued. He started his own record label, More Protein, and embarked on a side hustle as a DJ. He'd started his career in the clubs and seemed rejuvenated by his return. In 1991, under the moniker Jesus Loves You, he released the superlative "Bow Down Mister," which incorporated gospel and "Hare Krishna" into a slow-burning house cut. Even amid patchwork albums, fans could unearth gems like "I Specialize in Loneliness" and the frothy "Girlfriend."
Then came his finest hour: "The Crying Game." George's bittersweet voice, Pet Shop Boys production, and lush strings, all in service of a bruised Brenda Lee classic. Voilà! The ideal theme song for a film where a straight man falls for a transgender woman. The subsequent disclosure of George's tempestuous sexual relationship with Moss throughout Culture Club's heyday added more layers of meaning to his most poignant performance.
Though he still seems reliant on the same sources of income as many of his early MTV contemporaries (reality TV, nostalgia tours), Boy George's legacy feels more vibrant than most of his peers'. Credit a generation of younger artists, including John Grant, that didn't hold him to the same grudging standards of conduct as I did.
In 2004, Anohni invited George to sing "You Are My Sister" on Antony and the Johnsons' I Am a Bird Now. She recalled hours spent gazing at the same record cover that'd flummoxed Sebastian and me 33 years before: "George was really the first reflection I saw of myself in the world. I saw him and thought, 'Okay, that's what we do when we're like this: We become singers.'"
George has done a mostly admirable job easing into the role of elder statesman, writing two entertaining memoirs and a successful West End musical (Taboo) about his roots in London's New Romantic club scene. Well-chosen covers of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Yoko Ono have aligned him with the musical groundbreakers who came before him.
Best of all, he's still making music. Mark ("Uptown Funk") Ronson featured George on his 2010 Record Collection. In 2013, the singer startled fans with This Is What I Do, his first studio album of original material in 18 years. His register has dropped lower, the rasp in his throat transformed from finest sandpaper to jagged gravel. Like Billie Holiday's circa Lady in Satin and Marianne Faithfull's from Broken English forward, George's voice has been imbued with hard-edged wisdom by decades of ups and downs.
Silence isn't the only thing that omits queer voices from the narrative. Ageism within our own communities erases us, too. Boy George turned 55 this year, an age so many men of my generation—friends who taught me to feel proud when I proclaimed "I'm gay"—never lived to see. The world needs smart, mouthy, middle-aged queers.
So if George elects to join the cast of Celebrity Apprentice or periodically trot out the oldies with Culture Club, I won't complain. Release new music. Give more interviews. Just keep making noise. I may not always agree with everything Boy George says—or chooses not to say—but thank goodness he still has a microphone.