Luther Vandross hid for his mama: The closet is not only for the self-hating and selfish
Being in the closet oftentimes is not just about us. It’s about those we love enough to not want our problems to become their fights.
By George Johnson
The “closet.” A colorful phrase used to describe the lives of people like me who were too afraid to live as a queer people publicly. The place where we brought all of our lovers to do sexual things in the dark. The place where we could sneak off to and party with our gay friends, only to return back to work, or school, or home, and pretend that we were “too busy with _______ to have time for a girlfriend.”
The closet, for many of us, became our place of safety and a second home. Often, that closet door is a shield, and not always just for ourselves. Sometimes, it is a shield used to protect the ones you love so much that you could never embarrass them by not being perfect in a world that says queer can never be.
On a recent episode of Watch What Happens Live!, Andy Cohen casually asked Patti Labelle about Luther Vandross’ sexuality. The singer stated that Luther “did not want his mother to be [upset]–although she might have known–he wasn’t going to come out and say this to the world. He had a lot of lady fans. He told me that he just didn’t want to upset the world. It was hard for him.”
Many stood divided as to whether Patti was right to have said what Luther no longer could. “Outing” is a major problem in the LGBTQ community, with dangerous implications. When a person is outed, they lose the agency to define their own story. Furthermore, it endangers the person—especially Black trans women—who are often met with violence and death upon such discovery. Although many knew about Luther Vandross’ queerness—confirmed by his friend Bruce Vilanch in 2005—some still felt what Patti did was wrong because it wasn’t her secret to tell.
Regardless of where you stand on that issue, it is undeniable that Patti’s statement opened up a necessary dialogue about what queer people go through when making the decision to stay closeted for reasons outside of themselves. In an article by Gerren Keith Gaynor entitled “The real tragedy in Patti Labelle’s outing of Luther Vandross”, Gaynor makes a profound statement that I’m sure resonated with many queer people: “The tragedy is not that LaBelle outed Vandross without his blessing. The tragedy is that he had to hide it in the first place.”
Societal views of the closet correlate with deceit and promiscuity, never addressing the lack of safety for those of us living publicly “out.” Regularly imagined as sneaky and dangerous, the truth is that many “DL” people can witness the shaming and abuse that queerness elicits and consciously choose to avoid it.
The world has not created a safe haven for those of us who are queer, and continued efforts from the state and our communities to reinforce heteronormativity force us to make the decision of hiding our identity not just out of protection for ourselves, but also the ones we love the most.
My little brother is about 3 years younger than me. We both grew up in a little city called Plainfield, NJ, with two working parents and an awesome support system led by our grandmother. He was like a built-in best friend, and I took pleasure in being his older brother. That meant helping with homework, babysitting, walking with him to the store and other normal responsibilities placed upon the older child in the home.
As I entered my teens, things started to change. I experienced how kids can be mean and cruel and I never wanted the burden of who I truly was to be carried by him. Sitting on the bus and hearing kids make jokes about me from behind my seat. Constantly having my friends come to me with “the rumors” about my sexuality and trying to convince them I wasn’t for fear that they might abandon me. I didn’t know if he knew my sexuality, but I knew that he was too important to have to fight my battles should I choose to live openly as a teenager.
So, I didn’t. I forced myself to be attracted to girls, and even attempted to date one. I went to the prom with a girl and abstained from having sex all through high school. I believed that no one could say I was gay if it couldn’t be proven that I had a gay encounter.
As fate would have it, my brother and I also attended college together. I was a senior his freshman year, and by that time I had joined a fraternity and made a name for myself on the yard. Being the first man to graduate from college in my immediate family also meant not having my sexuality be a blemish on my family. I remained a virgin until the last semester of my senior of college, and kept that act a secret as well. I had to ensure I had enough masculinity to “pass,” and forgo any issues my brother would have to deal with if I was unable to.
I was still very closeted up until about the age of 25, when I got into an altercation with a member of frat who called me a “faggot.” I called my best friend, who in turn called my little brother. Fortunately, the situation diffused itself, inadvertently opening up the first communication about my sexuality with my brother.
To my surprise, he told me he had always known, and despite my attempts to make sure he didn’t have to carry that burden he still had to deal with it. This taught me that no matter how valid the reason we choose to stay in the closet, it can never fully protect the ones we love from queerantagonism.
I still remember his response: “I don’t see you as gay, I see you as Matt (my middle name). All of us just see you as Matt.” Though I am both Matt and gay, I knew what he meant, and these were words that I held on to and forever changed the way I operated moving forward.
For Luther Vandross, or just the boy who sits next to you on the bus, being in the closet oftentimes is not just about us. It’s about those we love enough to not want our problems to become their fights. It’s a door that we place up as a shield for our loved ones to stand behind while our lies become the weapons we use to fight off all the rumors.
We watch queer children hurt themselves and commit suicide and assume the burden is the fear of being public, without considering their capacity to love their family so much that they would rather carry their shame alone.
As is the case with “outing,” our responsibility remains to work against environments where homophobia forces the suppression of identity. Luther’s story is like many other queer folks who are making the ultimate sacrifice to protect those they love. There is nothing shameful about being queer, and it’s time for those who love us to protect us for once. Because whether we have reason to be there or not, we can never fully exist living in closets, or we will carry the darkness to our graves.
George M. Johnson is a Black Queer Journalist and the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He writes for EBONY, TheGrio, Teen Vogue, NBC News, Black Youth Project and several other national publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram