Robyn Crawford deserves to have the space to share how much she loved Whitney Houston. We cannot demand that once-closeted queer folks never speak of their relationships.
By Vanessa Taylor
By default of being human, there is not an aspect of our lives that exists in complete separation from anyone else. Our stories are tangled and, as a writer, I’ve come to know that intimately. We can spend hours hunched over keyboards, trying to determine what is ours v. theirs, but the deeper you go, the harder that distinction is to manage. Our heads will throb with the effort of trying to find where we begin, where their thread is, except this is more like prying apart fibers than anything else.
I can’t say for certain, but I imagine Robyn Crawford encountered this for herself when crafting her newly released memoir, A Song For You: My Life With Whitney Houston. Within it, the singer’s longtime friend and assistant confirmed the rumors that dogged their steps throughout Houston’s career. They were lovers, perhaps as entangled as two people can be, with Crawford writing, “The love I felt for Nippy was real and effortless, filled with so much feeling that when we talked about ending the physical part of our relationship, it didn’t feel I was losing that much.”
Across social media, many responded by accusing Crawford of tarnishing Houston’s legacy. There are claims that Crawford’s memoir is just an attempt to capitalize on Houston in death, but there is a tenderness in how Crawford writes and speaks of Houston which makes it clear that isn’t the case. After Houston died in 2012, Crawford wrote in an Esquire obituary, “I have never spoken about her until now. And I knew she 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.”
For anyone who has paid attention to Houston’s career, Crawford’s memoir is not a revelation, but a confirmation. The two women met when Houston was 16 and Crawford was 19 then lived together as roommates in New Jersey. Their relationship has been the topic of conversation before. Hell, even Houston’s family members commented on it. Bobby Brown told Us that Houston was bisexual and her brother Gary said in Whitney, “I knew she was a lesbian… I knew what she was.”
There are many reading Crawford’s words with 2019 standards of what it means to “come out”—already faulty, even in our context—and projecting onto Houston, who debuted in 1985 when AIDS was called “gay cancer” and the broader LGBTQ+ community was facing even more consistent attacks. Even then, organizations like the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays (1984) were fairly new. It’s not even always safe to be Black and gay in the present, and people make hard decisions in order to protect themselves, just as Houston and Crawford came to a decision that suited them at the time.
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“One day, we decided — before her career really took off, before she recorded her first album — that if people found out about us, they would use it against us,” Crawford told the Advocate. “So we made the determination to not be physical any longer. We sat down and made the conscious decision that we would not do this. I loved her. It was important for our love to be unconditional and never changing.”
Crawford has been routinely demonized by Houston’s family and it’s hard to pretend that their relationship has no bearing on that. In a 2013 interview, Houston’s mother Cissy Houston, told Oprah Winfrey, “I didn’t particularly like her. She just spoke too much. Disrespectful sometimes like she had something over Nippy and I didn’t like that at all.” She also told Winfrey that she would “absolutely” have been bothered if Houston were gay.
The title for Crawford’s memoir is that of a song by Leon Russell. The lyrics include, “I’ve acted out my life on stages, with ten thousand people watching, but we’re alone now and I’m singing this to you. You taught me precious secrets of a true love.”
We cannot come to Crawford and demand that she separates Houston from herself. We cannot demand that she is quiet for our own comfort, so we never have to trouble our perceptions of our idols. We can understand that it’s difficult to toe the line between what is yours to tell and what isn’t—if that line even fully exists in situations like this. We can understand that it’s messy. But, we cannot demand that Crawford, and other once-closeted queer folks, never speak of the love they have shared.
Vanessa Taylor is a writer based out of Philadelphia, although the Midwest will always be home. She has work in outlets such as Teen Vogue, Racked, and Catapult. Her work focuses on Black Muslim womanhood and the taboo. You can follow her across social media at @bacontribe.