Luther Vandross’s Glass Closet

First published July 7, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Luther Vandross was the avatar of romance. Other people’s.

The famed R&B singer, who died last week at 54, zealously declined to discuss his personal life, telling reporters that it was “none of your damn business.” Indeed, when his biographer Craig Seymour tried repeatedly to broach the subject of his sexuality, the singer told him, “You’re trying to zero in on something that you are never ever gonna get….Look at you, just circling the airport. You ain’t never gonna land.”

Well, I’m just going to come out and say it. Vandross was gay.

Not that I’ve ever slept with him, or even know him personally. But his gayness was as much an open secret as Liberace’s or Peter Allen’s. And like those two similarly flamboyant and energetic performers, he was a master of hiding in plain sight, neither confirming nor denying what anyone with even moderately well-tuned gaydar knew anyway.

So Seymour’s biography, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross, dances around the question it can’t quite ignore. As reviewer J.S. Hall described the book:

Any motions of love and/or romance are followed by the observation that Vandross has never revealed any of his beloveds’ names or gender. And while they are not traits exclusive to gay men, Vandross’s near-total immersion into his work, his fluctuating weight, his penchant for perfectionism (and his bitchiness when things don’t live up to his expectations), his love of flashy stage clothes and the color pink, his flare for interior design and his ownership and display of a homoerotic David Hockney painting, all strongly suggest someone who’s focused far too much time, energy and effort into submerging an aspect of himself that he doesn’t wish to deal with.

Or at least, that he didn’t wish to deal with publicly and directly. Instead, Vandross dropped hints, as when he retained the masculine pronouns in his 1994 recording of Roberta Flack’s hit “Killing Me Softly”: “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd. I felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud.”

Such subtlety — some would say “evasiveness” — was consistent with Vandross’s general approach: “I’m more into poetry and metaphor, and I would much rather imply something rather than to blatantly state it,” he once told a reporter. “You blatantly state stuff sometimes when you can’t think of a poetic way to say it.”

True enough. But you also use poetry and metaphor sometimes when you’re afraid or embarrassed to state things plainly. One can now only wonder at the full explanation for Vandross’s legendary non-answers.

Perhaps one cannot blame the obituary-writers for being as elusive as Vandross on the subject of his sexuality. Most do not mention it at all, and the few that mention it do so only obliquely. The following, from the AP story, is typical: “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.”

Well, duh — unless “marriage” is read to include same-sex marriage. But most readers won’t make that connection, and Vandross would presumably be just fine with that.

Some readers will no doubt think I’m being inappropriate. Perhaps you agree with Vandross that it’s none of our damn business, and perhaps it isn’t. But you can’t fault me for pointing out that a celebrity who made a career out of singing about romance adopted a rigorous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his own. Even if his sexuality is none of our damn business, the irony of his public posture certainly is.

Or perhaps you’ll insist that coming out is a personal choice. Of course it is. But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t encourage people to make that choice, or that if they don’t we must be complicit in whatever public posture they assume, including those that treat gayness as a dirty little secret.

And this, ultimately, is what bothers me about hide-in-plain-sight gays: their implication that same-sex love is something unmentionable. As the philosopher Richard Mohr puts it:

People need to let the gayness of individuals come up where it is relevant, rather than going along with the shaming social convention of the closet, the demand that every gay person is bound to keep every other gay person’s secret secret. For the closet is the site where anti-gay loathing and gay self-loathing mutually reinforce each other. Even people who are out of the closet demean themselves when they maintain other people’s closets. For the closet’s secret is a dirty little secret that degrades all people.

Luther Vandross was often rightly praised for the honesty of his music. If only he had taken that honesty one step further.