I just finished watching the two new documentaries that came out about Whitney Houston. Taken together, they tell an amazing story of the pain of the closet and suffering involved when people lie about their sexuality to the public and to themselves. I must admit that when I started this project years ago, and when I wrote most of the blog entries on this site a few years ago, Houston was not really on my radar. I had never really thought about her as part of this massive 1980s closeted LGBT pantheon on MTV, as someone suffering through some of the same tortuous anxieties that George Michael, Elton John, Boy George, and other closeted pop stars from the 1980s felt. Yet, once again, here we see one of the biggest stars of the 1980s, one of the biggest pop stars of all time, one of the greatest voices of all-time and most charismatic performers of all time also had a queer secret she could never truly deal with. Oddly, this secret was more or less in plain sight, and everyone around her certainly knew what was going on.
I am talking of course about Robyn Crawford, the one person in Houston’s life who truly loved her, truly knew how to take care of her, and stuck with her through thick and thin until she was more or less forced out of Houston’s inner circle as Houston completely spiraled out of control. Both of these movies make it clear: Bobby Brown was the ruination of Whitney Houston. And her interest in him was very much a public pretense and calculation, marrying the ultimate black male sex symbol for a generation of young African-African girls, the ultimate pin-up poster-boy, Mr. New Edition himself. I’m not saying there wasn’t some love there between them, but that marriage completely ruined her. One of the movies, Whitney, downplays Robyn a bit, but makes clear that Houston’s massive downfall coincided with her involvement with Brown. The other movie, Whitney: Can I Be Me? highlights more thoroughly Robyn’s central role in Whitney’s rise to stardom (the GOOD years, remember those?) and their deep, strong, intimate bond. I was struck in both documentaries by how butch Whitney looked at the beginning of her career, very short hair, very tomboyish. Everyone around Whitney seemed to recognize that Robyn was the best thing that ever happened to Whitney, but because the sexual dynamics of the relationship were unclear (or perhaps all too clear), her inner circle was reluctant to deal honestly with the situation. Houston’s mother, Cissy, was a flat-out homophobe who drilled the fear of God in Whitney from her earliest years, fusing her gospel passion with the same self-loathing, hatred and shame that would haunt her throughout her life. There is an amazing clip in Whitney: Can I Be Me? from a TV interview in early 2000s (mid-downfall) in which Whitney admits she was her own worst enemy, and uses the word “devil” to describe herself. This seems relevant in terms of how she thought about herself: evil because of her desires, evil because she believed that gay people were mistakes Her religious beliefs, unfortunately, fueled her homophobia and her sense of internal conflict.
Bobby Brown certainly must have seemed like the solution to her problems. Houston first became interested in Brown immediately after she was loudly booed at the Soul Train awards in 1988, the culmination of black frustration with the ways she catered her image and music primarily to a white audience. In Brown, she saw two kinds of redemption and validation: it would authenticate her blackness (right when she started adding more R and B hooks to her music), and, perhaps most importantly, Brown would be her beard; it would quell rumors or thoughts people might have that she was a lesbian. For years, Whitney sustained relationships with both Robyn and Brown, who hated each other, until the tension became unbearable and Robyn eventually was compelled to leave during a disastrous tour in which it was plainly evident to everyone involved that Whitney was completely falling apart. With Robyn gone, there was no one to take care of her. Bobby Brown was interested Bobby Brown.
Whitney: Can I Be Me? makes one very bold assertion repeatedly: that if Robyn had been fully accepted as Whitney’s partner, both by her inner circle and perhaps the public at large, then Houston would not be dead. She would probably still be singing and bringing the same joy she brought to people in the late 80s and early 90s. Whitney and Robyn worked; Whitney and Bobby was a slow-motion airplane crash happening in the media spotlight. But Bobby walked away fine–he has a new wife, two kids–Robyn has also settled down with another woman and the two woman have adopted children. Only Whitney and her daughter Bobbi-Christina are dead, both from horrific accidental bathtub drownings.
A lot of factors figured into Whitney’s personal denial of her sexuality, but I think the most dominant factor was simply the historical moment and context in which she became famous. In the mid-1980s, to have the sort of fame Whitney both sought and achieved, the sort of fame few human beings ever get close to in their lives, a public pretense of heterosexuality was mandatory. Absolutely mandatory. What seemed to happened was this: there was the real Whitney–street, Newark, authentically black, and most certainly a lesbian–then there was public-image Whitney–very girl-next door, middle-class, white-friendly, picture of elegance and grace. These were two very different people, and I think somewhere along the lines, probably when her career started flagging a bit around the early 90s, she got lost in the made-up version of herself. She, like many classic movie stars, got lost in her star persona, decided to become the person that everyone thought she was. Which was impossible, of course, because nobody can really live up to those standards. She tried, and it killed her. Sadly, in the movies, the queer character usually dies at the end, and this seems to be the case with Whitney Houston. It could be the most tragic pop star death of all time.