Did the closet kill Whitney?
DIVA publisher Linda Riley questions whether Whitney Houston's sexuality played a part in her premature death.
Nick Broomfield’s documentary, "Whitney: Can I be Me”, goes some way to exploring Whitney Houston's sexuality, but the film’s title is telling, begging the obvious answer that, if you’re Whitney Houston, no - you can’t be.
On 3.30 pm on February 11th, 2012, singer Whitney Houston was found unresponsive in the bath at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. She was 48 years old. Paramedics performed CPR in vain, and she was pronounced dead less than half an hour later. On March 22nd the LA County Coroner’s Office named the cause of death as drowning, noting that several drugs had been found in her body. In addition to cocaine and cannabis, these substances included diphenhydramine, alprazolam and cyclobenzaprine. The coroner found no suggestion of foul play, and the death was recorded as ‘accidental’.
Who knows what would have become of Whitney had she been allowed to embrace her sexuality, a privilege that so many of us take for granted today? Perhaps other issues would have led to a different fall from grace, but one thing is for sure: whether we’re dealing with international pop icons, our work colleagues or members of our family, creating a situation where they are unable to embrace who they truly are is tantamount to abuse. The incidence of LGBT suicide is far higher than for straight people for one overriding reason: the lack of acceptance by those close to us and by society as a whole.
Whitney’s descent from adored global megastar to drowning in a bathtub via a life punctuated by domestic violence and drug abuse has been well-documented, and yet her sexuality - while not entirely airbrushed from the record - has often been glossed over as a contributory factor.
Those of us who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of LGBT+ equality know only too well how denying one’s sexuality can contribute to drug abuse, self-harm, mental health issues and suicide. Throw the pressures of fame, controlling record companies and an abusive husband into the mix, and we can start to understand the Whitney Houston story a little more clearly.
There seems no doubt that Whitney was bisexual. She met Robyn Crawford in 1979, and they soon became inseparable. When success came to Whitney, Robyn was first her assistant and then her creative director. Nobody can be sure as to when friendship became romance, but there is little doubt that the pair enjoyed an intimate relationship which they were repeatedly forced to deny. Indeed in Bromfield’s documentary, close friends confirm as true the rumours of the ‘romance’.
By the early 90s, these rumours were getting out of hand, and Whitney married singer Bobby Brown in 1992. Brown now acknowledges that, throughout their marriage, Whitney and Robyn maintained their sexual relationship, resulting in a battle for Whitney’s affections which continued until 1999 when Robyn left. Various testimonies from domestic and security staff confirm that Robyn and Whitney had been in love.
It was then that things began to unravel. Unable to come out to a far less tolerant public than we have today, stuck in a marriage of convenience with a violent drug user, and without Robyn’s steadying hand, Whitney’s struggles with her identity took a darker turn. Her once radiant face and her powerful voice now starting to mirror the ravages of drug misuse, her star began to dim, while all the time she was unable to acknowledge her sexuality to her fans, her record company or her family. And while Broomfield’s film does not explicitly mention it, Whitney would not be alone in finding it hard to reconcile her sexuality with her strict and devout Baptist upbringing. In fact, soon after Whitney’s death, a prominent Christian website published an article referencing her sexuality entitled ‘How Bites from the Forbidden Fruit Led to the Demise of Whitney Houston’.
For people trying to come to terms with their sexuality in an unfriendly world (and it is worth pointing out that the world today is friendlier than it was in the 80s and 90s), it has been widely documented that family support is essential. If those closest to you offer support and understanding, then the strength this gives you to face the world - whether friends, colleagues or casual acquaintances - is undeniable. Let us look at a short passage from a book by Whitney’s mother Cissy:
"I knew I didn’t want Robyn around my daughter, and I told [Whitney] that. There wasn’t much I could do though. [Whitney] liked Robyn. She was past the age when I could forbid her from seeing someone. Kids have a mind of their own when they get older. They want to experiment with all kinds of things. And I don’t know if it was more than that.”
Here we see acknowledgement of a relationship and, at the same time, disapproval.
After publication, Cissy Houston appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. It’s worth looking at a transcript of the conversation after the above excerpt had been read out:
After reading the excerpt, Winfrey asks Cissy, “Would it have bothered you if your daughter, Whitney, was gay?”
“Absolutely," replies Cissy.
“You would not have liked that?”
“Not at all,” comes Cissy’s response.
“You would not have condoned it.”
I would like to think that, today, Winfrey would have pushed Cissy harder on what has to be described as homophobia (she may have discovered that Cissy’s views were, in part, a result of her religious beliefs) but let us summarise. Whitney Houston was undeniably bisexual, perhaps a lesbian. Her former husband now acknowledges that their marriage was ‘so Whitney could clean up her image’. Brown also accepts that the relationship with Robyn did not stop after his marriage to Whitney until 1999, which robbed Whitney of the one person she seems to have truly loved romantically. Her record company was terrified that any tarnishing of the pretty, all-American, ex-gospel singer’s image would hit their spreadsheets hard, and Whitney’s own mother was never going to offer support and acceptance.
We owe it to the memory of Whitney Houston, as well as the unsung, unacknowledged gay men, lesbians, bisexual and trans people who - either by design or through accidental overdose - have ended their lives because others chose not to accept them for who and what they are.
The rise and fall of Whitney Houston is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, but we can learn lessons. Even Oprah Winfrey might rethink how hard she challenges homophobia on her show, but we should all acknowledge how dangerous it can be when people cannot be themselves. Employers, colleagues, schoolmates, friends from your local pub who, through no fault of their own, happen to be straight must be educated about the dangers of not creating a positive atmosphere where those who identify as LGBT can not only be out, but can be proud of who they are.
Yes, we are getting there, but the Whitney story reminds us of what can happen when things go wrong. So let’s keep working hard, keep campaigning, and keep making our straight friends and allies aware of the importance of being allowed to be yourself.
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