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Michael Jackson: Talking about gender fluidity
Cultural Q's, a recurring column
by Francesca Royster
2013-01-16

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Michael Jackson saved my life or, at least, he helped me figure out how to live it. This September, Sony released the 25th-anniversary edition of Jackson's seventh album, Bad. What I hope we remember about Jackson and this album are the ways that he presented a palette of choices for how to be in the world, especially in terms of gender.

Recently, Lady Gaga helped raise more than $5 million at a charity auction by purchasing 55 items from Michael Jackson's wardrobe, including his multi-buckled Bad jacket and one of his trademark white gloves. In a tweet to her fans, Gaga cited the importance of archiving Jackson's costumes for the ways they represent his "spirit" and "bravery" for his fans.

Both Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga challenge gender binaries and model the power of self-transformation through music, clothing and performance. Music can provide a lifeline, a space of fantasy and reinvention when the world seems confining. This is especially important for LGBTQ fans, whose gender and sexual identities are either rendered invisible or socially dangerous. As by my definition gender queer, Jackson broke barriers by including a wide range of masculinity and femininity in his performances.

As a society, we need to open up the ways that we talk about gender, beyond the binaries of male and female, in our public and private lives. This holiday season, what an amazing gift Bad would be: providing great music and the opportunity to talk about gender as a place to seek freedom.

In his sometimes indefinable voice, ranging from deep and sexy to high falsetto; in his moves, from tight and dapper spins with sparkling socks, to bold crotch-grabbing to open vulnerability, as a young person I found possibility and flexibility in a world that otherwise felt constraining.

On Friday nights, my friends and I would watch videos of Jackson—for a while in the 1980s, he ruled MTV and the show Friday Night Videos, and fashion for ourselves a new way of being.

In the video for "Bad," Jackson becomes a gender-bending leader of the b-boys in eyeliner and long flowing locks. (Jheri curls would never be the same.) His moves—whether poppin' and lockin' or jazz-inspired, are precise and ballet-graceful. His howl, something like Peter Pan's after a night of smoking cigars, is rebellious and free.

Gender is not only a theoretical issue or an issue of style, but a matter of safety—even life and death, especially for transgender and other gender non-conforming young people. Many young people who are gender-unreadable, or who dress differently from the gender assigned to them at birth face harassment on the streets, in hospitals and police stations, and on their jobs.

Home is not safe: According a 2009 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 26 percent of LGBT teens who came out were told by their parents that they must leave home. Out of the estimated 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States last year, 20 to 40 percent are LGBTQ.

School is not safe: In February 2008, 15-year-old Larry King—an Oxnard, Calif., student who wore jewelry and make-up and gender-variant clothing, and who was brave enough to come out at school—was shot to death on school grounds. A study by the Trans Murder Monitoring Project estimates that around the world one transgender person is killed every three days.

Music can become a place to reimagine what gender looks and sounds like, thanks to the Michael Jacksons, the Lady Gagas, the Andre 3000s, the Princes and the k.d. langs of the world. Some might not see Jackson as a heroic figure, given the charges of ongoing drug abuse tied to his death and the allegations of child sexual abuse. He was never convicted, or the charges were formally dropped. But they still haunt his image. But as a performer, Jackson's music has opened up important avenues of freedom for his listeners.

In the 25 years since Michael Jackson released Bad, there have been many gains in civil liberties for LGBTQ people, including the right to marriage and the right to adopt, at least in some states. But we need to continue to seek accountability from our laws, schools, police, hospitals and other public institutions for these continuing injustices. In order to make these changes, we also need to have conversations with each other about unjust treatment of folks because of their clothes, their bodies, their voices. It just might be in culture: the art we see, the books we read, the films and television shows that we watch, music and videos like Jackson's—where we can find new possibilities.

Francesca Royster is a professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago, and teaches courses in African and Black Diaspora studies and Gay, Lesbian and Queer Studies on performance and popular culture. Her new book, Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era (forthcoming from University of Michigan Press), explores queer, odd and other outsized Black musical performers—including Michael Jackson, Grace Jones and Eartha Kitt—and their fans. This op-ed was written in association with The OpEd Project, which seeks to expand the range of opinion voices.


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