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Whitney Houston and the Ethics of Posthumous Outing

Whitney Houston and the Ethics of Posthumous Outing

whitney houston, bobby brown

Is it ever OK to out someone after they die?


The outing of the late pop star and actress Whitney Houston as bisexual is raising some frequently asked questions about whether it's ever acceptable to reveal such information when the person in question is dead.

Houston was outed Wednesday by her ex-husband, singer Bobby Brown, in an interview withUs Weekly about his new memoir, Every Little Step.

"I know," he told the magazine about Houston's relationship with Robyn Crawford, her former assistant. "We were married for 14 years. There are some things we talked about that were personal to us."

Rumors about her sexuality followed Houston throughout her career, but she always denied that she was lesbian or bisexual. In 2000 she told Out, "Listen, I took a lot of grief for shit that wasn't me, OK, 'cause I had friends, 'cause I was close to people. But that ain't me. I know what I am. I'm a mother. I'm a woman. I'm heterosexual. Period."

Brown revealed to Us Weekly that he believes part of the reason the "I Will Always Love You" singer stayed in the closet was the pressure she faced from her deeply religious mother, singer Cissy Houston. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the elder Houston said she would never have approved of her daughter being in a same-sex relationship. She called Crawford and Whitney "good friends."

After Brown aired the intimate details to Us, Cissy Houston relased a statement to People rebutting his claims.

"Last night I saw Bobby Brown's interview with Robin Roberts. It was disturbing, the elder Houston told People. "Although the interview was supposed to promote HIS autobiography, he never spoke about his parents and siblings and any issues they might have or have had that impacted and may continue to impact on 'Every Little Step' he takes. Instead he chose to concentrate his comments primarily on Whitney. I can't help but wonder why."

In the Us Weekly interview, Brown also alleged that the iconic singer might still be alive if she still had Crawford in her life. "I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney's life, Whitney would still be alive today," Brown told the magazine. "She didn't have close friends with her anymore."

As the singer's mother says, Whitney is not here today to authenticate or acknowledge any claim Brown is making about her sexuality. If Brown's allegations are true, and the pop singer didn't feel comfortable acknowledging that relationship publicly, some would say that is something that she took to the grave and something that should remain confidential.

Certaintly, other public figures have been outed posthumously. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who died in 2013, was criticized in life by LGBT and AIDS activists for not taking a more active role in addressing the AIDS epidemic when he was mayor. Koch never confirmed the gay rumors that followed him, but critics say he didn't take steps to assist the gay community with AIDS services that could have saved thousands of lives because of his paranoia that the public would discover he was gay -- a fact that was revealed after his death.

In 1996, The Advocate ran a story about the late Barbara Jordan, a lawyer and Texas congresswoman who was a lesbian but never came out publicly. The story was about the "secret the former congresswoman chose to take to her grave." "Do you really have to write this story?" a friend of Jordan's told J. Jennings Moss, the Advocate reporter who authored the story. "This is not what Barbara would have wanted."

But who decides whether it's OK or necessary to make someone's LGBT identity public knowledge? The public sometimes feels as if they are owed those private details. The story quoted a reader who wrote the magazine shortly after Jordan's death to express disappointment in the congresswoman for not coming out when she was alive. "I know I am not alone in feeling less respect for Barbara Jordan for not coming out in death," the reader wrote.

To some, outing celebrities and public figures is taboo, whether the individual is alive or not. Other, however, see some circumstances that justify it -- the need for LGBT visibility and role models, and the need to call out closeted people who are working against the LGBT population's interests. It's also homophobic, they say, to report incessantly on straight celebrities' love lives but consider same-sex liaisons or even orientation strictly private.

Michelangelo Signorile, the host of The Michelangelo Signorile Show on Sirius XM Radio's OutQ and the editor at large for the Huffington Post Queer Voices vertical, believes a person's homosexuality shouldn't be an untouchable subject. "If we're supposedly in a much more enlightened place about this, and it doesn't matter, then why is the question a terrible thing to ask?" the journalist told TheAdvocate. To not ask is "latent homophobia, but it's couched in a concern for privacy," he says.

Signorile was also a cofounder in 1989 of the short-lived but influential OutWeek magazine, which became famous for outing closeted celebrities, including some after death, such as media mogul Malcolm Forbes.

No one, public figure or not, wants to be defined by one single characteristic. In an interview last year with The Advocate,actor and musician Carrie Brownstein said she recognizes the importance of queer visibility in pop culture, but she doesn't like the notion that anything is "owed" to the public. "I see the importance of visibility and think that it can be corrosive to be hidden, but I don't think anybody 'owes' anything. I think that kind of terminology is dangerous -- this 'owing.' I think we need to change the conversation from 'Do you owe me this?' to 'Are you living your best self?'"

In Houston's case, so many questions remain in the air. Is Bobby Brown releasing this information for any reason other than getting people to buy his new book? In 2008, after the couple had separated, Brown released another tell-all book, Bobby Brown: The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But. Houston was alive when the book was published. In an interview with People, Brown called their marriage "doomed from the very beginning." "I think we got married for all the wrong reasons," the "My Prerogative" singer wrote in the book. "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."

After the book was published, Houston's rep told People, "Miss Houston is sad that Bobby feels he need to say such things but she choses to take the high road and will not speak badly about the father of her child even if it's to set the record straight."

But while Houston was alive, Brown never said she was bisexual. He may have feared a libel suit, accusations of lying, or other backlash. Now the information is out there and Houston can't respond to it. So it remains for the public to decide if it's a victory for LGBT visibility or a breach of confidentiality.

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Yezmin Villarreal

Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.
Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.