By Keith Boykin
Could it be a coincidence that R&B legend Luther Vandross passed away in the same week when Terry McMillan’s divorce to a bisexual man became public and R. Kelly’s new “Trapped In The Closet” music video outed a closeted gay man?
On June 30, just hours after Logo launched the first-ever gay television channel on basic cable, our heads were spinning with news that Luther Vandross had died at 54. Four days earlier, the San Francisco Chronicle first reported the lurid details of McMillan’s divorce court filings.
In each story, mass media’s well-worn caricature of the deceitful — and dangerous — Black gay man took center stage. And on the heels of new research suggesting nearly half of Black gay and bisexual men in several major cities may be HIV positive, we have to ask: What is the relationship between these images and our physical and emotional health?
In the very first show to air on Logo (a documentary called “The Evolution Will Be Televised”), gay activist Urvashi Vaid warned gays and lesbians that visibility does not equal acceptance. She’s right, of course, but those of us who are Black and gay are still struggling just to be visible, still waiting for more of our own heroes to come out or be seen. Like the characters in R. Kelly’s musical soap opera, too many of us are still trapped in our own closets.
Of course, some of the Black gay men who have been visible recently are not our best representatives. No matter what else he does in life, for example, Jonathan Plummer will always be remembered as Terry McMillan’s gay spouse–left to be immortalized like Bobby Brown, who introduced himself to the Dali Lama as “Whitney Houston’s husband.”
McMillan’s husband claims in court records (published online at thesmokinggun.com) that he did not know he was bisexual when he met and married his famous companion. Down low “expert” J.L. King — author of the sensational memoir “On the Down Low” — quickly pronounced Plummer’s explanation not just implausible, but impossible. “Nonsense,” King told the Washington Post. “He knew he was gay.”
I’m not sure if Plummer is telling the truth, but his story is certainly plausible. I know because I came out when I was 25 years old, and I never knew I was gay and never slept with a man before that time.
So how would King know the mental state of a 20-year-old Jamaican man he apparently never met? And how does someone like King, who can’t even decide if he’s straight or bisexual, become a spokesperson for the Black LGBT community? No matter. Just in time for the McMillan controversy, the producers of the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” on hiatus for the summer, scheduled a July 7 re-run of the controversial “down low” show that first catapulted him to public attention 15 months ago.
But there is another twist to this story. Plummer accuses McMillan of hurling hateful homophobic epithets at him after he told her he was gay. “I’m Black and rich again and female and I’m smarter than you and an army of fags,” McMillan allegedly wrote to him in January. I asked openly gay author E. Lynn Harris, a personal friend of McMillan’s, for perspective. “Terry is not homophobic. It’s not fun going through a breakup of any sort,” he told me. “It becomes even more difficult when you’re a public figure.”
And then there is Luther, the quintessential balladeer of our time, a wealthy and successful bachelor with a beautiful voice who, fat or thin, could have easily found a wife but never married and hardly even bothered to fake a heterosexual lifestyle. When asked about his sexuality in a 2002 interview with BET, Vandross simply said it was none of their business. It was an honest answer that no straight celebrity would ever give.
But in the Black community, we still subscribe to the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which may explain why some Blacks are upset by efforts to out Vandross posthumously, as if being gay would somehow mar his already extraordinary career.
What people don’t understand is that Black gays and lesbians are desperate for affirming images of ourselves. While the white gays get Ellen, Elton and the “Queer Eye” guys, we’re stuck with J.L. King, the poster boy for the down low; Jonathan Plummer, a gay man who deceived a famous wife; and Othniel Askew, the Black gay man who murdered a New York City councilman a year ago this month.
We rarely see positive stories about us in the media, and when straight Blacks attempt to tell our stories, they depict us as scandalously as the closeted gay pastor in R. Kelly’s music video.
That’s why we’re so anxious to clutch onto Luther. We’re eager to find realistic images that reflect the true diversity of who we are.
But that’s also why we have to tell our own stories. This month, a new film called “The Ski Trip” will debut on Logo; it will be the first Black gay feature film on television. It is produced and directed by Black gays and lesbians. And it offers a refreshing change from the pathological portrait of Black gay men in the media recently.
If we in the media spent half as much time telling stories like “Ski Trip” as we’ve spent talking about the down low and Terry McMillan’s divorce, maybe we wouldn’t have as many Black gays and lesbians trapped in the closet in the first place. And maybe one day, a new, visible Luther will sing our song instead of R. Kelly.
Keith Boykin is the author of Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America. A version of this essay previously appeared on PlanetOut.com.