At Michael Jackson’s memorial service the Rev. Al Sharpton gave a rousing speech that had the congregation at the Staples Center rise to their feet at times with shouts of “Amen.”
Sharpton made one particular statement in his speech to MJ’s three children. Addressing the reasons for Jackson’s eccentricities, he said, “I want his children to know there was nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with, but he dealt with it anyway.”
While clearly Sharpton’s statement hinted to the racism Michael Jackson endured in the music industry as an African American entertainer trying to be a crossover success, Sharpton’s statement totally ignored — as much as the black community has in its tribute to Jackson — the homophobia, too, from us and the music industry.
Diagnosed with vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes depigmentation in patches of his skin, Jackson bleached his skin, not as a denunciation of his blackness, but rather, as he said, as a way to cosmetically have a more even skin tone.
Just as Michael was black, he was also queer because he did not conform to our society’s heterosexist norms. And as the man in the mirror faded from black to white, so too did his staged gender performance from cute straight boy lead singer of the Jackson 5 to an effeminate male solo artist donning outfits in sequins.
And as the consummate drag performer, he was not only a singer and dancer, Jackson was also a shape-shifter.
Jackson transitioned himself first into looking like Diana Ross and then later into looking like his baby sister Janet, and then later he transitioned himself into something, well, as inhumanly ghastly as he became more ghostly looking.
Jackson’s gender blending was as transgressive, tabooed, and subversive as his skin bleaching.
He wore many masks until the masks became him.
Jackson’s costumes and accessories range from various signature wigs to his hypermasculine look with his military/marching band outfits or his classic red (faux) leather look from the “Beat It” video to his softer look with his white nylon socks that were always prominently displayed beneath his black dress pants when he was doing his famous moonwalk.
Whereas Jackson couldn’t be on the “down low” about his skin bleaching, he could be and had to be on the down low about his sexuality.
With an entertainment industry that forced Rock Hudson, a movie idol, into the closet until his death, and with a black community that still has light years to go in accepting its own lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer population, Jackson concealed his desire to grow up by donning an asexual Peter Pan image.
But when rumors abounded, nonetheless, that Jackson was gay, so too did rumors that Jackson was a serial pedophile who beguiled young, impressionable boys into his bed using the Neverland Ranch as a lure.
Although Jackson was acquitted of all charges, the strangeness Jackson had to deal with that Sharpton did not speak about at Jackson’s memorial was homophobic bigotry, a bigotry that’s predicated on the stereotype that one’s gayness or perceived gayness is not only deviant but it is also innately criminal.
“Every time they knocked Michael down, he got back up. Every time they counted him out he got back in,” Sharpton said at the tribute.
The child sexual abuse charges not only knocked Jackson down but also shocked his fan base. And with the potential of his multimillion recording industry collapsing under false allegations, Jackson had to go into action.
When Jackson tied the knot first with Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’s daughter, in 1994, following the first child molestation charges in 1993, everyone knew that Jackson was in damage control mode. The 1997 marriage, rumored to be not consummated, to Debbie Rowe, who is the mother of two of Jackson’s three children, shows how compulsory heterosexuality exacted a toll on his life.
“We will never understand what he endured … being judged, ridiculed. How much pain can one take? Maybe, now, Michael, they will leave you alone,” Marlon Jackson stated at his brother’s tribute.
And maybe Marlon is right.
Jackson was unquestionably eccentric, and his masks did not always protect him or liberate him because he always had to don them within the restricted boundaries of both race and sexual discrimination.
We might ask whether Jackson’s queerness was more a function of society’s homophobia than it was his own.