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Feb. 11 marks 10 years since Whitney Houston died, her accidental drowning in a Beverly Hilton hotel bathtub especially tragic as it occurred just hours before the annual Clive Davis pre-Grammy gala was due to start in a ballroom on the ground floor. Davis discovered Houston when she was barely 20 years old and would mentor her through the decades, but behind the scenes, one of Houston’s longest and closest relationships was with childhood friend-turned-lover Robyn Crawford, as journalist Gerrick Kennedy describes in his forthcoming book, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston” (out Feb. 1). In an exclusive excerpt, the author explores the singer’s sexuality.
In the 1980s, if you were queer and navigating Hollywood or the music industry, a shot at mainstream success often came at the expense of hiding parts of yourself. Going into the shadows of the closet, for many, was the only option. Even the Village People shied away from their queer origins when they hit it big with their deliciously gay anthem “YMCA.” Whitney and Robyn were on the precipice of adulthood when their lives intertwined that summer in 1980. Whitney was already grinding toward her career, but take that off the table and you have a teenage girl experiencing a same-sex romance right at the onset of AIDS, an epidemic that would be met not just with blatant homophobia disguised as moral panic but messaging rooted in shame. Whitney and Robyn were teenagers with connections to the Black church, so their experience with same-sex love was hearing how it would send them to hell or give them AIDS and kill them. We hadn’t moved toward harm reduction yet, so all we had was abstinence messaging, which allowed sex that wasn’t heterosexual to be seen as an evil sin that would ruin you — a moral failure shared with the war on drugs, which used initiatives like “Just Say No” and Drug Abuse Resistance Education to color the perception of the same drugs that were at the center of the hedonism and free-spirited counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. At 17, Whitney knew that no one could find out about the sex she was having with Robyn — just as much as she knew that no one could find out that they were getting high.
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A quarter-century removed from Whitney’s ascent, Black queer creatives are at the forefront of music and film and television, in part because of a cultural shift that has allowed a generation to break through and be embraced in the mainstream — and also because we’ve finally come around and confronted the ways in which the shame and judgment within our communities were instrumental in keeping some of our greatest Black talents in the closet. Now we have Frank Ocean, Kehlani and Janelle Monáe progressing R&B with their sounds while centering their sexuality; Lil Nas X was able to become the first gay rapper to top the pop charts; shows like “Empire” and “Pose” and queer creators like Lena Waithe and Janet Mock have shifted the way Black queer characters are represented in film and on television. But none of this framework existed in 1985 when Whitney made her debut. She had no path forward that allowed her the space, or the grace, to figure out herself — and especially not in front of the world. There was no Ellen DeGeneres or k.d. lang or Melissa Etheridge or Rosie O’Donnell. And even though their coming-outs were historic moments in the movement, these were white women who didn’t carry the burden Whitney would have had on her shoulders as a Black woman from a famous gospel family.
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If Whitney was of the Jazz Age, her relationship with Robyn would have barely raised an eyebrow. Under the smoky lights of speakeasies and cabarets, blues singers freely sang about exploring their sexuality. The genre wasn’t yet mainstream, so there wasn’t much pressure to play it straight for conservative white Americans who feared Black sexuality as much as they fetishized it. The blues scene thrived during the Harlem Renaissance. Black queer artists lived openly, even as they risked persecution for engaging in homosexual acts. “I went out last night with a crowd of my friends / It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men. … Talk to the gals just like any old man,” Ma Rainey sang on 1928’ s “Prove It on Me [Blues],” a record the Mother of the Blues wrote in response to gossip about her sexuality after she was arrested for partaking in an orgy with several women. Ma Rainey is our earliest example of a Black woman explicitly embracing lesbianism in her music. She set the mold for Black divas by trotting out onstage in sequined gowns, false lashes and high heels — her teeth capped in gold, a diamond tiara above her head and her clavicle laced with a necklace made of gold teeth. Ma Rainey wasn’t alone. Her protégé, and rumored paramour, Bessie Smith, sang about sexual freedom much to the ire of her abusive husband and became the highest-paid Black entertainer of her time; Gladys Bentley gained popularity for her cross-dressing performances before later claiming to be “cured” of her homosexuality; in 1935, Lucille Bogan recorded “B.D. Woman’s Blues,” where she longed [for] a time when “bull dykes” didn’t need to deal with men — and that’s one of her cleaner records.
The freedom queer Black women felt in their music vanished on the other side of the Great Depression as Black upward mobility and the civil rights movement focused on preserving the Black nuclear family. Anything that didn’t fit into a traditional heterosexual construct was seen as subversive and a threat toward the assimilation to white norms that was critical for integration. Gospel and blues merged into R&B and soul, genres that romanticized heterosexual desire. The Motown era presented Black women as docile romantics in order to achieve crossover success, but the sexual freeness percolating across funk, disco and glam rock allowed Black women to present different ideas of female sensuality. Donna Summer, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross all centered female pleasure, and their music is essential to the radical ways Black women in music explored their sexuality after the respectability of the 1950s and 1960s. The liberation they found in their bodies and their embracement of queer fans made them all gay icons at a time when even allyship from mainstream artists was considered risky. Whitney closing the chapter on the physical intimacy she shared with Robyn after she signed her deal can only be seen as an act of survival. The tolerance extended to queer artists was still few and far between, as pop music was rife with homophobic gatekeepers. After Whitney asked her label to fly Robyn out to meet her during a Black radio convention in 1985, her appearance made the straight radio jocks and program directors perk up, and they spent the weekend buzzing about the pair. The chatter made its way to print journalists, who eventually started asking in every interview, Is Whitney gay? Are Whitney and Robyn a couple? Long before Robyn ever broke her silence, the public arrived at the conclusion that Whitney was a closeted lesbian and she and Robyn were star-crossed lovers doomed by the oppression of society and Whitney’s religious family. Could things have been different for Whitney if she had come from a different background? Perhaps, but I have a hard time believing she would have presented any differently considering where we were in the late ’80s and in the ’90s.
When Whitney was christened the Prom Queen of Soul in 1987 by Time, she was asked about the tabloid chatter on her sexuality. Specifically, the nature of her relationship with Robyn. Whitney took her usual stance — some variance of a nonchalant dismissal — and called Robyn over to directly address the reporter. But there was also a flippant denial: “Anyway, whose business is it if you’re gay or like dogs?” It was meant to shut down the conversation, but Whitney had a habit of reacting to press in ways that at times could be curiously defensive. She could flip the debutante act on and off, and it was typically those moments of being asked about Robyn or about Bobby [Brown] or about the drugs where code-switching went off and she slipped into Nippy, who was tougher and brasher than the Whitney Houston who pertly smiled for the cameras. Maybe it was the fear of having to explain what she herself didn’t yet understand, or maybe it was her commitment to survival and preserving her image, or maybe it was the desire to not be defined as one thing, but the inquiries around her sexuality typically provoked Whitney’s nastier side. She grew more irritated that we questioned her when she didn’t say the things we wanted to hear in interviews, and her trust in the press was irrevocably tarnished in 1990, after a reporter spun Whitney and Robyn’s enthusiasm for how they were running the Whitney Houston empire into a faux exposé. Whitney saw the media as “blood-sucking demons” and vowed to never engage the press again, a threat that was impossible to sustain before the advent of social media gave celebrities the ability to promote themselves without taking a single question from a journalist.
And so the question persisted, and she continued to push back. When her denials weren’t dressed in offhand language, she sometimes disparaged the role Robyn played in her life as she tried to assert her heterosexuality or defend her union with Bobby after they got together and the questions didn’t stop. She even once made a comment in jest to The Washington Post in response to gossip that Bobby and Robyn had come to physical blows that he would have knocked Robyn out if it was true and that she and Robyn had had “enough time together” and the “relationship had changed from friendship to more of an employer-employee arrangement,” a sentiment she repeated often. “People want to know if there is a relationship: Our relationship is that we’re friends. We’ve been friends since we were kids. She now is my employee. I’m her employer. And we’re still best of friends,” Whitney said in her 1993 Rolling Stone cover story. “You mean to tell me that if I have a woman friend, I have to have a lesbian relationship with her? That’s bullshit. There are so many, so many female artists who have women as their confidantes, and nobody questions that. So I realize that it’s like ‘Whitney Houston — she’s popular, let’s fuck with her.’ I have denied it over and over again, and nobody’s accepted it. Or the media hasn’t.” Surely Whitney didn’t intend on linking homosexuality with bestiality in Time magazine or to downplay her closest friend as the help or the years of aggressive denials that were sometimes wrapped in bigoted language. We can’t know what was in Whitney’s heart back then, but the way she sometimes spoke of Robyn’s role in her life could be read as bitter deflection by those who haven’t felt confined to loving in the shadows, afraid of what their family would think or ashamed to embrace their truth. This isn’t to exonerate the harm that came with the bigoted things she said, but Whitney was a young woman, a Black one, rising to the top during a time when state-sanctioned homophobia was the norm. She didn’t see herself as gay, and we didn’t talk about sexual fluidity with the ease we do now. This was very much a time when you were gay if you had sex with the same sex, period. That’s where our thinking was — and for some, it’s where their thinking still remains. That rigid thinking would have challenged Whitney’s career, and she and Robyn knew it. And Clive knew it. It wasn’t until the world had shifted that he came out as bisexual, and that was in 2013, when he was 80 and Whitney had been dead a year.
Excerpted from the new book “Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston” by Gerrick Kennedy; published by Abrams Press ©2022
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