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Luther, closeted to the end

Saturday, July 09, 2005


His female fans must have had a zero gaydar factor.

I didn't comment on Luther Vandross's passing last week, which happened while I was away. The man seemed gay as the day is long, but you didn't see any of that in the mainstream media coverage. I wasn't a big fan, but even back in the 80s heyday, everyone was talking about whether Luther was "family." In this week's Southern Voice, there's a great piece by Chris Crain, "The straight-washing of Luther Vandross."
A famous artist whose life is such a story of contrasts would make for fascinating study, and great reading, but you wouldn't know it from the obituaries and "appreciation" stories published in the mainstream press after Vandross passed away on July 1. With rare exception, the straight press sidestepped long-standing speculation that Vandross the "lifetime bachelor" was, in fact, gay.

...Gay columnist Keith Boykin wrote in January 2002 that Vandross was asked about being gay on the BET show "Journeys in Black," and refused to answer the question. In the history of humanity, no straight man - and certainly no straight African-American man - has ever refused to answer that question.

The less explicit clues to Vandross' sexual orientation were also there, enough to make even the least sensitive gaydar scream "BLEEEP!" Vandross counts girl groups and Dionne Warwick as his primary musical influences, and his early breaks came with gender-bender David Bowie and gay icons Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. An early Vandross tune made into a Broadway musical ("The Wiz"), and he formed a group with semi-closet case Nile Rogers of the disco supergroup Chic before either was famous. Vandross went on to send the lead vocals in Chic's dance hit "Dance! Dance! Dance!" Hello? Hello? Hello? Anyone home in homoville?
The real problem is that the news media, which has no problem recounting the endless het romances of stars (real or alleged), is squeamish about even asking a star whether or not they are gay - how is this journalism? In Vandross's situation (as well as in the posthumous media de-gaying cases of Susan Sontag and Ismail Merchant), the coverage bends over backwards, straining any sense of credibility, to avoid any fact-finding about the subject in question that might reveal they were gay, even if the person was openly gay in their social circles, but not to their fan base. Why is there a need to preserve a straight fantasy in death?
Give the Post credit for at least mentioning the speculation, one step better than his obituary in the New York Times, which noted in the lead that Vandross "spun romance into hits" but about his own romantic life noted cryptically: "Mr. Vandross is survived by his mother." The Los Angeles Times, which published Miller's criticism about the de-gaying of Sontag, similary straight-washed Vandross.

But the F-minus goes to the Associated Press, which cheerfully reported that Vandross' weight "fluctuated so much that rumors swirled that he had more serious health problems than the hypertension and diabetes caused by his large frame." Can you say "AIDS," everyone?

What's more, AP reported about Vandross, "the lifelong bachelor never had any children, but doted on his nieces and nephews. The entertainer said his busy lifestyle made marriage difficult; besides, it wasn't what he wanted." Can you say "gay," everyone?

If AP can't, Answers.com and Wikipedia can. The exact same information - in the exact same words - is reported on that site under a section of Vandross' bio titled "Sexuality" that deals expressly with rumors that the singer was gay. Wikipedia goes on to repeat the Vandross non-denial on BET's "Journeys in Black." Craig Seymour's biography of Vandross, "Luther: The Life & Longing of Luther Vandross," also deals at length with the gay rumors and doesn't debunk them.

Does any of this "prove" Vandross was gay? Maybe not, but it's enough to make it into stories about his life. Of course Vandross is partly responsible for the lack of real evidence here, but so is the mainstream media, which interviewed Vandross countless times in his career without ever reporting (or even asking?) anything about his romantic life.
Perhaps the only clue Luther left his audience is the fact that he recorded the Roberta Flack standard, "Killing Me Softly" back in 1994 without removing the masculine pronouns. "I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd. I felt he'd found my letters and read each one out loud."