The day George Michael died, I did what any mourning child of the 80s lost in the logic of late-capitalist consumer-fandom would do: I bought a t-shirt. A few clicks on eBay and I had ordered myself a copy of the iconic t-shirt made famous by Wham! in the 1984 music video for their smash hit ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, with its stark, black-on-white imperative, CHOOSE LIFE.
‘Outfit for 2017 sorted’, I announced on Facebook. It was a small symbolic way to give a figurative finger to all the high-calibre pop culture losses of 2016, from Bowie to Prince to Cohen to Carrie. During their lifetimes, each of them had in some way given the finger to bourgeois morality, which had made me love them. But it was also a means for me to galvanise my optimism in preparation for 2017: the spectre of Donald Trump and the global rise of right-wing populism. It was a way of connecting visibly the peppy imperative refrain, ‘Wake me up!’ before we go-go down that road, because the world has been there before and we all know where it can lead.
‘didn’t pick you for a pro-lifer…’ quipped an American friend when I posted a proud selfie in my commemorative fashion garment, which I had immediately adorned with a pink triangle pin (in remembrance of homosexual victims of the Nazi regime). In the photo, taken at Midsumma Festival, I beam smugly at the clever triple-layered statement I’m making: GAY on GAY on (a) GAY. In my mind, George’s t-shirt had always been associated with the campaign against AIDS.
What was my friend on about?
I was six years old when ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ came out. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was an historic year in late twentieth-century politics. I was instead starstruck by the soundtrack: Boy George, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Cyndi, MJ, Tina, Madonna, Bruce and the Bronski Beat. Wham!’s video was an explosion of upbeat peppy happy glitter YAY! The t-shirt was also worn by members of Queen, both in film clips and on stage.
These pop icons were pro-gay, pro-women, pro-Black. I could hardly believe they were rabid ‘pro-life’ anti-abortionists. Yet my friend made me wonder: what was behind the t-shirt’s gleeful allcaps petition?
For a lot of people, 1984 actually meant death. Ronald Reagan had been President of the United States for three years and Margaret Thatcher had been Prime Minister of Britain for five. As leaders of the free world, they were choosing death for millions.
1984 was the year Reagan first instituted the so-called Mexico City policy, or ‘Global Gag Rule’. Reinvigorated by Donald Trump on his first day in office, the rule forces foreign NGOs to choose between A) accepting US family planning funds but being prohibited from providing abortion counselling, referrals or advocacy, let alone actual abortions (except in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment), or B) refusing US funds and finding an alternative.
Between 1979 and 1986, Reagan and Thatcher cemented their ‘special relationship’, pushing hard for increased nuclear weapons and escalating the Cold War. It was a time of boosting Western hegemony through arms manufacturing and deployment.
In 1984 the US government, supported by Thatcher, deployed the Pershing II ballistic missile Weapon System in West Germany as NATO tried to regain its lead in the arms race against the USSR. The four years from 1981–1985 saw a whopping 40% increase in US defence spending. From November 1983, the US was permitted to station 160 cruise missiles on British territory. Under Thatcher, the UK purchased the Trident nuclear missile submarine system and tripled its nuclear forces.
1984 was the time of radical deregulation, ‘trickle down’ economics, extreme tax breaks for the rich and a freeze on wages. This was the year Margaret Thatcher identified trade union leaders as ‘the enemy within’. In March that year British miners went on strike and for the next 12 months, Thatcher’s government would deploy brutal state force to eventually break them, achieving a major victory for the neoliberal economic agenda.
It was a war both abroad and at home – on workers, Black people, women and gays.
It was also the year George Michael wore the CHOOSE LIFE t-shirt in a music video that reached number one in the charts in ten countries, including both the UK and the US.
As a slogan, CHOOSE LIFE has variously been associated with suicide prevention campaigns, anti-nuclear campaigns and other progressive and public health causes, including a sexual health manual (‘teenage survival kit’) in Zambia. Rightly or wrongly, I’m not alone in my associating it with an AIDS campaign: a Google image search for ‘aids headlines 1984 uk’ turned up numerous pictures of George Michael, but it appears my memory simply created a pastiche of quite separate stories.
1984 was the year Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners (GLSM) formed to raise money for the strikers, organising a ‘Pits and Perverts’ benefit concert in London with openly gay singer Jimmy Somerville and the Bronski Beat on the bill. GLSM’s founder, the charismatic young socialist Mark Ashton, would later die of AIDS in 1987 at age 26.
1984 was also the year Bob Geldof founded Band Aid. Perhaps in line with Geldof’s vague bourgeois liberalism I simply confused the AIDS campaign with the Band Aid benefit concerts, which George Michael also performed at. (And after all, they both had something or other to do with ‘Africa’ didn’t they?)
Even before he came out in the late 1990s, George Michael was not only a fiercely outspoken interview subject, never shying away from expressing left-wing political opinions and openly opposing Thatcher. He was also a strong, visible and vocal supporter of LGBTIQ rights, an open and regular non-gay punter in the London gay clubbing scene, and performed at numerous high-profile awareness-raising gigs in both the UK and the US. The first of these was the Stand By Me AIDS Day benefit concert – aka ‘the AIDS party’ – in April 1987, with a line-up including Elton John, Boy George, Kim Wilde (with her dad!), Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Jimmy Somerville’s new outfit The Communards.
In fact it’s difficult to disassociate any of these artists from the pro-gay British pop-culture milieu in the mid-1980s. Elton John lamented bitterly at the time that AIDS had been largely ignored ‘because it meant getting rid of a lot of poofs’.
Certainly there was little sympathy before, or even after 1987, when the UK finally launched its AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance leaflet and television ad (with sombre voiceover by John Hurt, RIP), and Princess Diana was photographed holding the hand of an AIDS patient.
In 1984 the term ‘gay plague’ had become the going phrase in the press, having first appeared in Murdoch’s Australian newspaper in 1982. According to British Social Attitudes survey reports, in 1983 nearly two-thirds of the British population considered homosexual relations to be always or mostly wrong. Over half the population in the UK thought it was wrong for homosexual people to be employed as teachers, and 42 per cent thought they should not be employed in any ‘responsible position in public life’. By 1985, the number of British respondents with negative views had increased to almost 70 per cent, and by 1987 to 74 per cent. Surveyors hypothesised that the shift was related to public concern about AIDS and its association with the male homosexual community: the 1987 survey took place just weeks after the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign was launched. Meanwhile in the US, negative attitudes had plateaued at 75 per cent since 1982, having steadily liberalised over the preceding decade.
During this time, both Reagan and Thatcher aggressively attacked health programs and funding. National Archives documents show how Thatcher actively and repeatedly tried to prevent the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign, arguing that it ‘could do immense harm’ to teenagers to read information about anal sex, and that the proposed, evidence-based campaign material might even breach the Obscene Publications Act. As for Reagan, by 1987 – six years into his presidency – more than 20,000 people in the US had died of AIDS (70,000 by the time he left office in 1989).
It is nevertheless curious and even awkward that, aside from the obvious hermeneutic distortion required to use a slogan like CHOOSE LIFE, the anti-choice lobby in the US would co-opt a t-shirt that so many associate so strongly with an outspoken gay pop star from Britain – one who so brilliantly lampooned the US police establishment’s use of entrapment and gay-shaming (against himself) in the video clip for his smash hit ‘Outside’ in 1998.
In a pro-life chatroom, one user whined: ‘I remember getting all jacked up in college because George Michael wore a t-shirt that said, “Choose Life” – I thought he was against abortion and was pretty disappointed when I found out he was talking about AIDS.’
And yet there it is on the World Wide Web: ‘Shop for pro-life t-shirt online now’ with a picture of Catherine Hamnett’s CHOOSE LIFE design.
Interestingly, Hamnett has definitively settled the matter. In a public cease-and-desist notice, she protested: ‘The US anti-abortion lobby attempted to appropriate CHOOSE LIFE. We are taking it back and promoting its real meaning. Ours is authentic and I believe in a woman’s right to choose.’
In fact Hamnett has become well-known for using the fashion industry to make statements, often less ambiguous than CHOOSE LIFE. Some reveal a most basic, almost parodic, soft liberalism – such as SAVE THE WHALES – while others are firmly interventionist and demand-based, including WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW worn by Boy George and others, STOP WAR BLAIR OUT from 2003, the more recent EDUCATION NOT TRIDENT and NHS NOT TRIDENT, and the earlier 58 PER CENT DON’T WANT PERSHING, which she wore to a meeting with Margaret Thatcher in 1983. CHOOSE LIFE, she said, was a comment on war and conflict.
Political intervention or no, Hamnett is a designer, and still wants to sell t-shirts. In 2008, her website bore the intermingled messages of left liberal fashion, Buddhist principles and imperative logic of late capitalist ‘consumer choice’:
CHOOSE LIFE was relevant then. CHOOSE LIFE is even more relevant now.
CHOOSE LIFE is a message forever.
CHOOSE LIFE over WAR
CHOOSE LIFE over DESERTS
CHOOSE LIFE over EXTINCTION
CHOOSE LIFE over everything you do.
Buy a CHOOSE LIFE t-shirt in your size now.
It has been Hamnett’s highest grossing design of all time.
To clear up one further misconception, because it’s a popular one: the CHOOSE LIFE t-shirt predates Irving Welsh’s 1993 Trainspotting by almost a decade. This makes a lot more sense when we recall the alienated protagonist Mark Renton’s opening barrage in Danny Boyle’s 1996 film version: ‘I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?’
Like 1984, 2016 seemed to be a year of death – especially for those who grew up in the 1980s heyday of neoliberalism. Pop culture, no matter how commercial, always responds to its political surroundings (cf. Beyoncé). Many of the icons who passed away last year had come through that period of Reagan and Thatcher, and in their avant-garde, commercialist way had always somehow offered succour to the freaks, queers and leftists.
But – dare I bother uttering such a banality? – celebrity deaths in such puny numbers pale in comparison with the millions of lives lost and bodies controlled at the hands of governments with their bodies of armed men and weaponised moralism.
‘Life is winning’, declared Mike Pence at the annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington on 27 January, saying he and Trump would embrace a ‘culture of life in America’. But like Reagan and Thatcher before them, it is clear that the new administration is embracing a culture of more death and destruction. We can hardly feign surprise at Trump’s immediate onslaught on reproductive freedom, on immigrants, on Muslims, on the Standing Rock Sioux, even on facts. Obama didn’t exactly choose life either. Between 2009 and 2015, his drones killed more than 2500 people. Nor is the dribbling sycophancy of Theresa May and Malcolm Turnbull particularly surprising. Thankfully the resistance is already reaching unprecedented levels of energy.
The beauty and curse of liberal slogans is that they can be variously interpreted. If CHOOSE LIFE is devoid of specific meaning, then I choose to interpret my t-shirt as an appeal to optimism of the will (with thanks to Antonio Gramsci); as a celebratory call against despair, demoralisation and alienation.
How do we CHOOSE LIFE beyond buying a t-shirt? We learn from those who witnessed and survived the AIDS epidemic in the face of Reagan and Thatcher. We muster, we galvanise. We choose international solidarity. We choose power from below. We choose not the vague notion of ‘freedom’ but liberation from oppression. We choose to defend immigrants. We choose to expand reproductive choice. We choose not to side with the state. We choose to be part of the locomotion of history, the festival of the oppressed. We choose collectivity, solidarity, resistance.
Now choose who wore it better?
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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Kate Davison lives between Melbourne and Berlin and writes on the topics of racism, religion and sexuality in Europe.
More by Kate Davison
Parts of this article (those related to the constitutionality of governments offering "Choose Life" license plates) need to be updated. Please update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information.(August 2015)
Choose Life license plates are specialty license plates available in 32 states in the United States that express a pro-life message. The plates are the concept of Choose Life, Inc., a pro-lifeadvocacy group based in Ocala, Florida. It was founded in 1997 by Randy Harris, a commissioner of Marion County, after he got an idea (when he noticed an environmental plate on the car in front of him, while stuck in traffic) to use specialty license plates as a way to raise funds for promoting adoption over abortion. The plates feature the phrase "Choose Life", a slogan used by the pro-life movement, and a child art-like drawing of two children.
In 1997, Choose Life, Inc. collected the 10,000 signatures and US$30,000 required under Florida law at the time to submit an application for a new specialty plate, and State Senator Tom Lee sponsored a bill in support of the tag's creation. The bill passed both houses of the Florida Legislature in early 1998, but was vetoed by then-Governor Lawton Chiles, who stated that license plates are not the "proper forum for debate" on political issues. While campaigning for the governorship later in 1998, Jeb Bush stated that, if elected, he would sign a Choose Life bill if approved by the legislature. Choose Life, Inc. went forward with the plate application again, and, after passing both houses, Governor Bush signed it into law on June 8, 1999. Since then, Choose Life, Inc. has been active in helping groups in other states pursue "Choose Life" license plates. As of April 30, 2010, Choose Life, Inc. reported that Choose Life license plates had raised over $12 million. On June 21, 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed House Bill 501, which directs the funds from the plates directly to Choose Life, Inc.
Choose Life, Inc. is a non-profit organization, funded by donations and the sale of promotional items, such as T-shirts and neckties. A specialty license plate can cost an additional $25 – $70USD per year. Allocation of funds varies by state but funds typically go to crisis pregnancy centers, and organizations which provide maternity and adoption services, with funds explicitly denied to organizations that offer abortion services, counseling or referrals.
States with Choose Life license plates
As of September 2017, Choose Life license plates are available in 32 states:
- Nebraska (2017)
- New Jersey
- North Carolina (2016)
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- Washington, DC
- Wisconsin (2016)
States where Choose Life has been rejected
- Michigan: In 2017, Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a bill proposing the plates, citing "the potential to bitterly divide millions of Michiganders".
- New York: For several years, litigation occurred between the Alliance Defense Fund and the Department of Motor Vehicles. The original decision not to offer the specialty plates was overruled, but the issuance of the plates was held back pending an appeal in 2011. After more litigation, in 2015 the NY Department of Motor Vehicles' policy to exclude controversial, politically sensitive messages from plates was “reasonable and viewpoint neutral, which is all that the First Amendment requires" according to the 2nd Circuit majority opinion. After the decision in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, which gave states the right to determine whatever speech they want or don't want on plates issued by their state, no further appeal of the 2nd District decision was made by the ADF.
- Rhode Island: Gov. Lincoln Chafee vetoed a bill proposing the plates, citing the inappropriateness of using state license plates to fund religious initiatives.
- In Montana, an administration issue since 2016 has prevented the further issuance of "Choose Life" plates until the issue is resolved.
Reaction and criticism
"Choose Life" license plates have been criticized by pro-choice organizations, which have argued that in authorizing them, but not offering plates conveying a pro-choice message at the same time, states have carried out viewpoint discrimination. To this charge, Russ Amerling, Choose Life, Inc.'s publicity coordinator, has replied that "[pro-choice groups] have just as much right to have a plate as we do, as long as they go through the same process we did and not try to piggy-back onto the various states' Choose Life bills". He also pointed out that no "[pro-choice groups] have ever applied for a plate of their own in any state, until a [pro-life group] applied for a "Choose Life" plate."
Before June 2015, the United States Supreme Court had not yet clearly spoken on the legality of "Choose Life" specialty plates, and the federal circuits were split on their legality. The 4th Circuit had twice held that issuing a pro-life plate but not a pro-choice plate is impermissible viewpoint discrimination, but the 6th Circuit held the opposite. The 2nd and 7th Circuits had ruled that states could refrain from allowing any discussion of abortion on plates. When Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans was rendered in June 2015, however, it allowed states to determine whether it wants controversial language on their plates or not, including pro- or anti-abortion language, which precluded further litigation in New York against having the plates as had been decided a month earlier in the 2nd District, or further litigation in North Carolina for the plates, where the interpretation of the 4th Circuit that it was viewpoint discrimination to have one and not the other was reversed in 2016 after a review was demanded by the Supreme Court in light of Walker. Four states currently offer license plates with a pro-choice theme: Hawaii, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
- ^ ab"'Choose Life' License Plate Vetoed By Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee". AP. July 17, 2013.
- ^ abChoose-Life.org, accessed September 2017
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- ^Lithwick, Dahlia. (February 6, 2003). "Poetic Licenses." Slate. Retrieved June 23, 2007.
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- ^Burge, Kathleen. (May 5, 2006). "Driving force." Boston Globe. Retrieved June 23, 2007.
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- ^Alaska Personalized License Plates
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- ^"Ricketts signs bill creating 'Choose Life' specialty license plates". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved 2017-09-17.
- ^"The New Jersey Choose Life License Plate is Now Available". The Children First Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- ^ abc"Court rules whether N.C. can make "Choose Life" plates". CBS News. Retrieved 2017-09-17.
- ^Texas Choose Life plate
- ^"The "Choose Life" License Plate is Approved in Washington,D.C." The Children First Foundation. Retrieved 2013-12-23.
- ^"Controversial pro-life license plate approved". Appleton Post-Crescent. Retrieved 2017-09-17.
- ^"Gov. Rick Snyder vetoes bill that would have allowed 'choose life' license plates". MLive Media Group. Retrieved 2017-09-17.
- ^‘Choose Life’ plates win a round, Rick Karlin, "Capitol Confidential" Times-Union
- ^NY can ban 'Choose Life' license plates as DMV program upheld, Jonathan Stempel, Reuters
- ^"State Organizations Information - Montana". Choose Life America, Inc. Retrieved 2017-09-17.
- ^Hurst, Sarah E. (2003). A One Way Street to Unconstitutionality: The “Choose Life” Specialty License Plate. Ohio State Law Journal, 64 (3), 957-998. Retrieved June 24, 2007.
- ^The Center for Reproductive Rights. (August 2002). "Choose Life" License PlatesArchived 2007-07-01 at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved June 24, 2007.
- ^W. Alexander Evans (April 2008). "License to Discriminate: 'Choose Life' License Plates and the Government Speech Doctrine". Nevada Law Journal. William S. Boyd School of Law, UNLV, Las Vegas, Nevada. Retrieved 2013-07-03.
- ^United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (March 22, 2004). "Planned Parenthood of S.C. Inc. v. Rose, 361 F.3d 786 (4th Cir. 2004)". Retrieved 2013-07-03.
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- ^ abUnited States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (May 22, 2015). "Children First Foundation, Inc. v. Fiala, 790 F. 3d 328 (2nd Cir. 2015)". Retrieved 2017-09-19.
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- ^"Pro-Choice License Plate Advocated In Virginia: Supporters Threaten Lawsuit". The Huffington Post. May 25, 2011. Retrieved 2012-05-25.