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Photography Ben Sutherland via Wikimedia Commons

The problem with Boy George

As the singer returns to the limelight, the man he was prosecuted for assaulting has spoken out against him – raising questions about who deserves forgiveness

Former Culture Club singer and 1980s has-been Boy George is staging a comeback: last week, he appeared as a guest judge on Drag Race UK and this week, he reportedly became the highest-paid contestant on the new series of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. But not everyone is happy about this development. Amid this ongoing flurry of publicity, the singer’s 2008 conviction for assault and false imprisonment has resurfaced, and many people are objecting to his public rehabilitation – including the man he was prosecuted for assaulting.

Rising to fame in the early 80s with New Romantic band Culture Club – best known for hits like “Karma Chameleon” and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” – Boy George’s career has been plagued by addiction problems and legal troubles. He first became addicted to heroin at the height of his success, and was arrested for possession in 1986. In the 2000s, he was arrested for cocaine possession and falsely reporting a burglary in New York, where he was sentenced to community service. But it wasn’t until 2007, in London, that he committed the crime which is drawing so much controversy today.

The details make for grim reading. The singer was prosecuted for the assault and false imprisonment of Auden Carlsen, a model and male escort, who he handcuffed to a wall, beat with a metal chain, and threatened with “a box of leather straps, chains and sex toys”. During the trial, he denied the assault (though not the false imprisonment) and his defence team claimed the effects of his ongoing drug addiction as a mitigating factor. Unbelievably, his lawyer pleaded that, “Not only will he lose the money but, more importantly, the chance to do what he loves.” Cry me a fucking river! Having been sentenced to over a year in prison, Boy George was released after just four months. Shortly after, while he was still under probation, he went to court to demand permission to appear on Celebrity Big Brother – a move which does not suggest profound and deeply-felt remorse. The request was denied.

Fifteen years later, Boy George is finally getting his chance to star in a reality TV show. But the announcement has met with considerable backlash, which, no matter how much he insists otherwise, can’t be explained away by homophobia. Speaking to The Mirror last week, Auden Carlsen described the man who assaulted him as a “monster” and suggested that “giving him this sort of platform and a record fee sends the wrong message to survivors of violence and abuse.” In the same interview, Carlsen spoke about being diagnosed with PTSD, the permanent back injury he sustained during the assault and how, to this day, he struggles to meet people because he’s so anxious and sceptical of their intentions. It’s easy to understand why seeing someone who attacked you being granted cuddly national treasure status would compound that trauma. While Boy George’s representatives defended the singer by saying that “he apologised publicly on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories”, it was neither Morgan nor the general public who were owed an apology. It was Carsten himself, who insists he has never received one.

“Everyone is entitled to a second chance, and George has certainly earned it,” claimed the singer’s representation, echoing the standard line of everyone defending him. The first part of that sentence may be true, but the latter is debatable. Should people who do terrible things when they’re unwell be forgiven? Yes, but that requires a willingness to make amends, and that means taking into account the wants and needs of the person who you harmed. Boy George is categorically failing to do that, and by continuing to appear in the limelight, he is causing further distress – we know this because Carsen himself has said so. The singer may well feel remorse about what he did but, according to Carsen, he hasn’t done anything to remedy it; he hasn’t apologised, made amends or repaired the damage he caused in any meaningful way. He has served a four-month prison sentence, but that’s not to say that justice has been done.

Beyond the assault and false imprisonment, there’s also the less important but not entirely irrelevant fact that Boy George is simply… kind of an arsehole. Like many people who started out their careers as transgressive outsiders, in later life he has morphed into a tedious provocateur, railing against pronouns, which he derided as “a modern form of attention-seeking”, and political correctness. He has been a popular figure among a certain subset of the anti-trans crowd – the ones who still like to pretend they’re still liberal – because he harks back to a time when you could be gender non-conforming without inconveniencing anyone by changing your pronouns or requiring healthcare. As they see it, no one in the 80s was actually trans, because everyone that way inclined was happy to settle for being a gender-bending pop star instead.

Lots of anti-trans people are insistent on the idea that they don’t have a problem with androgyny. This idea is central to their self-conception as still being a bit trendy and transgressive, even as they team up with conservative Christians and boycott John Lewis for an advert in which a young boy wears a dress. Figures like Boy George – along with other pop stars who were famous when these people were young, back when everything was better – are important to their mythology. While he’s not responsible for how his legacy is interpreted by malicious actors, his remarks about pronouns, which were met with gushing praise from anti-trans group LGB Alliance and its supporters, played into their hands and actively bolstered their position.

If I will say one thing in his defence, it’s that he later pissed off many of the exact same people by criticising JK Rowling and tweeting that “trans people are not a threat to women or female spaces”. Presumably, his invitation to DJ at the LGB Alliance disco was rescinded. But even if he is not a transphobe, he’s still clearly bad vibes in multiple directions. It’s true that it’s possible to separate the art from the artist. But while Boy George has released some good music, his back catalogue isn’t quite strong enough to justify the effort. 

As a point of principle, I think there should always be a pathway to rehabilitation when a person does something terrible in the grip of addiction or mental illness. Boy George’s legal defence may have been cynical, but that doesn't mean it was entirely untrue. The decisions you make while in the grip of addiction are not necessarily reflective of your true character. But if you want to be forgiven, surely – at the very least – you have to apologise first (and not just to Piers Morgan.) No matter how sympathetic an excuse you may have, you still need to make amends when you hurt someone. This is a principle of transformative justice, but it’s nothing new or radical: it’s one of the pillars of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, which has been around since 1938. By giving him airtime, shows like Drag Race UK and I’m A Celeb are sending the message that when wealthy and powerful people cause harm, the feelings of their victims count for nothing at all.