Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ohmigod, I can't believe I almost missed an amazing landmark in history. Luckily I spotted a few proud headlines at various online news sites:

  • Rolling Stone announces that "Michael Stipe came out, identifying himself as 'queer,' two decades ago today."

  • Joe.My.God celebrates "Michael Stipe On 20 Years Of Being Out."

  • Salon blares, “Queerness is a state of mind: Michael Stipe on the anniversary of his coming-out."

Of course, it's possible these news sites might have missed this too had Mr. Stipe not reminded them. He thoughtfully recounts his groundbreaking admission in Britain's The Guardian newspaper. "It’s been 20 years since I announced to the world that I was queer," he opens, not shyly recalling his bravery.

Wow, I remember it like it was yesterday. As I recall, though, he didn't exactly say he was "queer." Or "gay." Or "homosexual." But I remember how brave we all thought he was to admit to the world that unlike 60% of America in the 1990s, he was definitely not entirely straight.

He was an "equal opportunity lech," he'd actually said, before refusing to define himself as gay, straight or bi. From that day forward it was like the world had changed. Michael Stipe had made history! Why, we'd never heard anything like it! He was the very first person ever who'd refused to define himself sexually as long as you didn't count Richard Deacon, Paul Lynde, Liberace, or any of the effeminate characters played by Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn in those 1930s films.

Mr. Stipe's announcement had such an immediate impact on my life. I was a fan of his who'd been out for years, and I'd had a crush on him. I'd heard the rumors and kept my fingers crossed. How the world spun on its axis when I realized that he'd actually kind of admitted that he'd once gotten drunk and spotted a guy that was maybe sort of hot.

I mean, put this into perspective. This was 1994, and there was a terrible danger to announcing sexual ambiguity: a performer could find himself almost too popular. Still, even the hetero singers risked it. Mr. Stipe's trailblazing came a mere twenty-two years after David Bowie came out as bi, fourteen years after Mick Jagger played an effeminate cross-dressing bisexual in Performance, and just twenty years after the New York Times declared Lou Reed to be "publicly gay." Just sixteen short years after the Tom Robinson Band sang "(Sing If You're) Glad To Be Gay," Mr. Stipe was singing, "Chicken trainwreck sombrero termites, ukulele marmalade cats."

I remember getting chills trying to imagine how things would change for the next generation! How emboldened they would be by a major star's admonition that he'd once seen a man who was kind of attractive and he told his girlfriend and she was like, "Whaaa?"

With this twentieth anniversary, Mr. Stipe cements his place in the queer history book, provided "queer" means "strange or odd." And clearly his selfless sharing hasn't been entirely altruistic. Age has brought him wisdom along with an almost poetic writing power. In The Guardian he shares how much that semi-coming-out changed his life, and it's remarkably powerful. I think we all secretly envy the man whose heart is an all-embracing, foundational tenet that accepted its own truth: that though it really, really loves women, there are maybe a couple of guys he'd kind of do.

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