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It May Not Have Been Patti LaBelle’s Place To Talk About Luther Vandross’ Sexuality, But I’m Glad She Did

If you ask a Black woman in her 70s a direct question, chances are she will give you a direct answer.

Seemingly keenly aware of this, Andy Cohen posed Patti LaBelle a profoundly intimate question about her close friend, the late Luther Vandross earlier this week on an episode of Watch What Happens Live: “Did Vandross struggle with the idea of coming out publicly? Was that something that you talked about at all?”

“He 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,” LaBelle explained to Cohen. “And he had a lot of lady fans. He told me that he just didn’t want to upset the world.”

Still, some took issue with her. During her Hot Topics segment on Thursday, talk show host Wendy Williams took issue with LaBelle commenting on Vandross’ private life. As much as I have enjoyed Williams, considering much of her radio shtick included speculating on the sexuality of select male entertainers (and occasionally, this shtick has surfaced on daytime TV), I am tickled by such assertion.

Insert the audio clip of Ooooh, how you doing? here.

Williams claims she can do so because she is an outsider, not a friend. That is senseless to me. Who better to answer a legitimate question about Luther Vandross than someone who actually knew him and loved him? LaBelle’s intent was not to be gossipy; she was asked a question about her friend and she answered thoughtfully and respectfully.

Yes it can be dicey to talk about someone after they’re dead, but Luther Vandross is dead and Patti LaBelle was asked a question that involved her. She chose to answer.

Others are bothered that Cohen even dared to ask pointing out that mere weeks ago, he asked Rosie O’Donnell about Whitney Houston’s rumored relationship with Robyn Crawford.

Granted, Cohen has been known to be messy with the sort of questions he poses his WWHL guests, but I don’t find this line of questioning to be malicious. Houston’s alleged bisexuality has been the subject of a documentary and been addressed by Houston’s mom, ex-husband, and Crawford herself wrote about Houston for Esquire which may not have confirmed anyone’s speculation but certainly stoked it.

And like Houston, many have commented on Vandross’ sexuality after his passing notably Out magazine’s piece “The Secret Gay Life of Luther Vandross” published in its April 2006 issue.

For those that have used LaBelle’s comments to lash out at Black people specifically, please do the community a favor and properly contextualize your critiques (or just shut up). While I understand that Vandross’ core group of fans were Black women, ask yourself if George Michael would have enjoyed the mega success he had in the 1980s if he were out? Exactly.

Such is why I’m more invested in the crux of LaBelle’s answer than litigating whether or not she had the right to offer one.

When I came out, my greatest concern was disappointing my mother. Ultimately, I feel that I did disappoint her, and while I have no regrets and we continue to love each other, daring to live as I was born became a barrier. I feel for anyone that is put in that situation.

Interestingly enough, my mom once took me to see Luther Vandross perform at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. I was a child and though I may not have thought it out loud, when I saw Luther, who was somewhere in between “Big Luther” and “Skinny Luther” at the time and wearing some purple sequin jacket, I saw through him (how could you not in that jacket), saw a part of me, and was fearful of what all that meant.

It’s unfortunate that Vandross worried that he would be disappointing his female fans, but his concerns were warranted. Much of his music was about love and selling a fantasy; sadly, if he were to acknowledge he was gay at the time, a sizable portion of the audience might have felt alienated. The same goes for George Michael, Whitney Houston, and every other artist of that era rumored or confirmed not to be heterosexual.

Although we’ve made much progress since then in terms of acceptance, consider that even at the end of 2017, we are still debating whether or not queer related films are sexual enough (and the reasons why they do tone them down).

Moreover, while there are acts like Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, and Syd, name songs of theirs that are explicitly about same sex love and/or graphic in their discussion of same gender sexual acts that have dominated the charts like those from their straight counterparts? We all can listen to songs from straight acts that do not directly speak to our sexual identities and enjoy them all the same.

Straight people have not totally responded in kind.

Knowing that, I’m not upset with Patti LaBelle offering a frank assessment of a struggle that pained her dear friend. I’m more so bothered that despite that progress that’s been made since one of the world’s greatest voices left us, the issues that concerned the late Luther Vandross remain matters worth worrying over.

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“Thots & Thoughts” is a column in which musings on dating, sex, race, religion, and politics all come togetherfrom a bird’s-eye view.