The queer afterlife of Whitney Houston

By Guest Contributor Pier Dominguez
It is perhaps a queer time to be writing about Whitney Houston. After all, she died over one year ago and the many memoirs and remembrances that trickled out since then–on television, magazines, newspapers and countless blog posts–have been replaced by fresher news in the celebrity gossip industrial complex. But nostalgia has its own rhythms.

It wasn’t until I saw Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview with Whitney’s mother about her memoir, in which she discussed Whitney’s relationship with Robyn Crawford that I thought about Whitney again. And it wasn’t until I heard James Blunt’s sad, poignant tribute to Whitney, “Miss America,” that the nostalgia led to more thinking.

I remembered that, at one time, I had been a pretty invested Whitney Houston fan. I wasn’t around for “How Will I Know” Whitney because I wasn’t old enough to follow pop music and she wasn’t a big star in Colombia—where I’m from–in those early stages. I missed her 80s pop princess moment, in which she brilliantly continued Diana Ross’ lineage of black feminine beauty and glamour and combined it with cheerfuly melodic Dionne Warwick-style pop music. She wasn’t part of my pop culture landscape either as the leather-jacketed, Babyface-produced, R&Bish “bad girl” of “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” My initial interest in Whitney came at the most obvious moment, during “The Bodyguard” era, when her worldwide celebrity was arguably as big as it would ever get, aided in part by the scandalous frisson of the heterosexual interracial pairing at the center of the film.

Before that, Whitney was perceived as having a perfectly prissy image in her shiny gowns. “There she is, Miss Black America,” images (1)Time magazine once exclaimed, and it was an image so overwhelming–such a model of racial achievement and gendered comportment–that even after Whitney’s death, Madonna said she envied her “innocence.” In truth, though she negotiated the public sphere differently than Madonna, she was always a liminal, contradictory figure.

From the start of her career she was accused of “selling out” and making pop music that was too “white.” The film pairing with Kevin Costner was part of that logic arguably. Her real-life pairing with Bobby Brown seemed to disrupt it, because he seemed too “black,” and some saw her wedding to the bad boy of R&B as a career move to appease less pop-oriented followers. According to Brown himself, it also seemed designed to manage other contradictions. Because it turned out her liminality was not only racial.

I had no idea then that there was a Robyn Crawford in Whitney’s orbit, always haunting her image, like some queer ghost. While Whitney was alive, every major profile of her, from Time magazine’s “Prom Queen of Soul,” to Vanity Fair’s “Thoroughly Modern Whitney,” would allude to the intense relationship between her and Robyn Crawford, which had started when they met at 16. It was brought up, often as a parenthetical aside, and left as an open question, denoting the relationship to connote queerness. Whitney would either deny it or say it wasn’t anyone’s business.

Black women’s sexuality is so often misread by mainstream culture as excessive and/or queer, that it’s arguably too easy to assume there is something beyond the eroticism of friendship going on between Oprah and Gayle or Whitney and Robyn. Yet after Whitney’s death, there were numerous non-punitive attempts to claim her as gay and contest the media’s representation of her persona. Peter Tatchell, a white gay LGBT activist writing for The Daily Mail, remembered meeting her with Crawford: “When I met them, it was obvious they were madly in love. Their intimacy and affection was so sweet and romantic. They held hands in the back of the car like teenage sweethearts. Clearly more than just friends, they were a gorgeous couple and so happy together.” Obvious. Clearly more than just friends. A desire for certainty.

In an evocative essay provocatively titled “The Widow,” black gay New Yorker critic Hilton Als remembered the early days of downloadRobyn Crawford in the Cubby Hole on Christopher Street, where they “knew” she was going out with Whitney. With obvious warmth he calls her “our” Whitney, a queer, black Whitney before she was swallowed up by the racial and sexual protocols of stardom: “Whitney Houston’s alternately powerful and bland resonance for us was not inseparable from our queerness.”

Evelyn C. White, author of a biography of Alice Walker—a powerful artist who never denied the queer complexities of black experience—wrote in the comments, “Thank you so much for this honest offering of true black love. You’ve said what those of us in the black lesbian community have known in our hearts — for decades.” Truth, race, love. Race and sexuality, knowledge and heart.

Robyn Crawford herself, in an as-told-to article that appeared in her “voice” in Esquire, finally said her piece/peace without any mention of romance. Towards the end of the article she says, “I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn’t. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her.” Speaking, silence, loyalty, betrayal. Betrayal of what? Speaking about what knowledge? Why the silence? As Eve Sedgwick has taught us, sexuality and knowledge have always had a fraught, messy relationship.

Perhaps that is why, in the Oprah interview, Cissy Houston seemed so surprisingly candid in admitting that she didn’t “know” the exact nature of the friendship between her daughter and Crawford. Beyond friendship, she didn’t know. It was precisely her admission of not knowing which seemed so rich with possibilities, seemed to say so much and speak so loudly.

Many commentators focused on her homophobic outburst, when she said she wouldn’t have approved of queer Whitney. For some, queer Whitney means white Whitney. This prompted discussions of homophobia in “the black community” and a reconsideration of what had led to her downfall: it wasn’t “too black” Bobby Brown who had ruined Whitney, it was keeping her sexuality secret from her mother (and the world) that had done her in. Life is incredibly complex, and it seems like biographical reductionism, part of the need to make everything into a cohesive narrative, to claim Whitney’s problems all came from having to “hide her sexuality.”

Yet I understand the feelings of sadness and anger upon sensing that it had turned out to be “true” that there was a queer Whitney. I was saddened and it was an overwhelming feeling because of the totalizing way we are still made to think of sexuality, as if it’s a matter of true or false, black or white, all or nothing. That is part of the problem—though perhaps also the pleasure–of sexuality as we currently conceive it. It can create such an alienating wedge between oneself and someone, even while celebrity identification can feel so full and intimate. As James Blunt sings in his tribute, we thought we “knew” her through the bars of a song and her face on the silver screen.

Whitney’s queer afterlife divides her public once again: Whitney, we hardly knew you. Whitney, we knew you too well. What does it mean to “know” somebody? Why do we align sexuality and race with truth and knowledge? Whitney, who was such a big star, teaches us something in her afterlife. She teaches us about the size, color and emotional resonance of “sexuality.”

Now we have James Blunt’s white soul tribute to Whitney. Blunt has himself teased the public with “knowledge” about his sexuality, falsely “coming out” and later denying it. Gay or not, he has created an affecting, cross-racial, queer tribute to a diva—one as delicate and haunting as Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” about Marilyn Monroe. He sings, in the melodious way she might have sang it, “No Goodbyes/You’ll always be Miss America.” But the resonance of that innocent pose will always strike everyone differently. Queer Whitney haunts us all.

  • http://twitter.com/devans00 devans00

    I’ve been a Whitney Houston fan since the mid-80s. Her empowering songs were a big part of my teen years soundtrack. Somehow I missed the whole is she or isn’t she gay drama with her friend Robyn Crawford all these years.

    As with Luther Vandross, I feel like entertainers have a right to some privacy. If they don’t say who they are with or appear at publicity events with a partner, we, the general public, should keep our noses out of their business. Human beings are complex. Celebrities shouldn’t have to offer up every detail of their being to fans if they don’t want to.

    I still love and admire Ms. Houston’s talents and contributions to society one way or the other.

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