How Will I Know?

02.13.12

Whitney Houston: Anatomy of a Lesbian Rumor

Before her marriage to Bobby Brown, Houston was dogged by questions about her relationship with her female assistant and best friend, Robyn Crawford. By Tricia Romano. Plus, full coverage on Whitney Houston’s death.

Remember when Whitney Houston was supposedly a lesbian?

Long before she married Bobby Brown and became a crack addict, long before “doodie bubbles” on Being Bobby Brown, long before her supposedly clean comeback, Whitney Houston was rumored to be a lesbian. Like Gayle and Oprah, Whitney had an ultra-close best friend, Robyn Crawford, who was also her personal assistant.

She met Crawford when she was 16 in East Orange, N.J., and soon they became inseparable; Crawford later dropped out of Monmouth College to work for her friend. Houston told Time magazine in 1987, when she was 23, that Crawford was the “sister I never had.” While both Houston and Crawford denied being gay, Houston’s explanation was still very forward-thinking for the time: “My mother taught me that when you stand in the truth and someone tells a lie about you, don’t fight it. I’m not with any man. I’m not in love. People see Robyn with me, and they draw their own conclusions. Anyway, whose business is it if you’re gay or like dogs? What others do shouldn’t matter. Let people talk. It doesn’t bother me because I know I’m not gay. I don’t care.”

And Crawford said to Time, “I tell my family, 'You can hear anything on the streets, but if you don’t hear it from me, it’s not true.’”

Crawford could not be reached for this article.

The rumor mill was easily fueled: at the time she shared a flat with her friend, even though Miss Black America (as Time magazine had dubbed her) was certainly rich enough to live alone, having already sold 13 million records and scored three No. 1 hits with her debut record from 1985, Whitney Houston.

And, though Houston was beautiful, she didn’t exude sex, the way someone like Angelina Jolie does. She was the perfect African-American woman for prudish America to cling to—very pretty, fresh-faced, and immensely talented. In her early days, scandal never touched her.

As with Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, who’ve publicly laughed off the lesbian comments about them, the gossips simply assumed that two women like Whitney and Robyn, who were so close, and who never seemed to have a lust-filled public love life, must be lesbians.

According to several gossip reports in recent years, it was common knowledge that Whitney and Robyn were together; blogger Daryl Deino wrote in 2009: “Anybody who works in the recording industry knows about Whitney and Robyn’s relationship; they barely did anything to hide it during recording sessions.”

On Sunday night, Esquire posted a poignant as-told-to obituary by Crawford. In it, she said: “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. Now I can’t believe that I’m never going to hug her or hear her laughter again. I loved her laughter, and that’s what I miss most, that’s what I miss already.”

Beyond her friendship with Crawford, the lesbian reports were also fueled by supposed sightings of Houston and Kelly McGillis. In the '80s and '90s, McGillis was best known for playing Tom Cruise’s flame in Top Gun. Houston, it was said, regularly visited McGillis in Chicago in 1991 when McGillis was filming The Babe. Then, McGillis was in the closet but rumored to be a lesbian in Hollywood entertainment circles; she came out in 2009.

The rumors about Houston and McGillis dated back to 1988, during the filming of The Accused, leading to one of the more absurd pieces of Hollywood scuttlebutt ever to emerge: that Whitney Houston was part of a love triangle also starring Jodie Foster and McGillis.

Later, when McGillis came out and Foster publicly acknowledged her then-partner of many years, the question around Houston’s sexuality once again lingered in the air.

But in 2009, McGillis squashed that urban legend in an interview with the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News. “I’ve never met Whitney Houston. I think she’s vastly talented, but I have never met the woman.”

People began to forget about Houston-as-possible-lesbian when she married Bobby Brown in 1992 in a lavish wedding on her $11 million New Jersey estate. She was 28 and he was 23; her career was stronger than ever—she had just starred in her first blockbuster film hit, The Bodyguard, and was on top of the world. His, on the other hand, was on the descent. His band New Edition had disbanded, and his solo career had cooled; his biggest success was behind him, with the single “My Prerogative” hitting No. 1 in 1988.

Crawford told USA Today in 1992, “I think once she’s married she’ll feel a lot more complete. I think that’ll be a self phase where she’ll be doing something for her life.” But even in that story, which was supposedly about her finding her prince, Houston had to address the lesbian questions. “I’m not gay,” she told the paper.

But if marrying Brown was supposed to be a shrewd career move to set Houston’s image literally straight, it had the opposite effect. America’s sweetheart was marrying America’s thug, and nobody understood why. As Grace Chu of AfterEllen wrote: “If I really wanted to clean up my image, marrying Bobby Brown is probably the exact opposite of what I would do.”

After she married Brown, new rumors displaced the old—ones that she was on drugs. They were soon, unfortunately, proved true.

But when she divorced Brown in 2007, the lesbian question began to resurface, in part thanks to Brown himself: in a “tell-all,” he addressed the gay rumors.

In Bobby Brown: The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But..., an authorized biography, Brown said that the marriage was “doomed from the very beginning. I think we got married for all the wrong reasons. Now, I realize Whitney had a different agenda than I did when we got married ... I believe her agenda was to clean up her image, while mine was to be loved and have children. The media was accusing her of having a bisexual relationship with her assistant, Robin [sic] Crawford. Since she was the American Sweetheart and all, that didn’t go too well with her image ... In Whitney’s situation, the only solution was to get married and have kids. That would kill all speculation, whether it was true or not.”

Unless Crawford or other former friends say otherwise, Houston’s true sexuality might never be known. But it does raise the possibly tragic question of how her sexuality, addictions, and eventual death are entwined.