Washington (CNN) — It was a performance that probably would have made Whitney Houston proud.
In the finale of the ninth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, in 2017, Sasha Velor faced Shea Couleé. As the two drag queens neared the end of their lip-syncing battle, Velor surprised the audience when she lifted her wavy red wig from her bald head and, to everyone’s surprise, released a swirl of rose petals.
These are the songs that took Whitney Houston to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list
It was one of the most eye-catching wig reveals in the show’s history, and Velour, who is gender fluid and uses the pronoun “she” in drag, took the crown. But there was also something that made that moment special: the music, in particular Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit “So Emotional.” Just as Velor began to lift her wig, she heard Houston’s voice rumble with, “I get so emotional, baby / Every tiiiiime I think of you.”
I often go back to that performance and reflect on the joy that she and much of Houston’s music brings to me, especially on days like today, which marks the 10th anniversary of her death on February 11, 2012. And especially as gay man. Many gay men, and gay men in particular, see some of their own issues and aspirations reflected in the beloved superstar’s life and work, and her presence resonates throughout gay culture. (Remember that lovely dance sequence in the 2018 movie “Love, Simon,” about a gay teen who hasn’t come out yet?)
“I don’t think anyone disputes the gay iconicity of Houston,” writes French academic Georges-Claude Guilbert in his 2018 book, “Gay Icons: The (Mostly) Female Entertainers Gay Men Love.” “She was beautiful, she was black, she was fierce (sometimes), she sang dance music.”
But Guilbert’s explanation doesn’t say it all. How did Houston become a gay icon?
At least part of Houston’s queer appeal is the deeply familiar isolation that borders on many of its movies and songs, according to Aaron Foley, a journalist and Houston superfan.
“There’s an undertone of loneliness in a lot of Houston’s work,” says Foley. “Think of ‘The Bodyguard.’ She doesn’t get the hero at the end. They break. That’s the part of the movie that people forget. So there’s a sense of longing and trying to find yourself.”
Also note Houston’s version of 1992’s “I Will Always Love You,” the most famous track on “The Bodyguard.” The soulful jazz ballad opens with a famous 45-second a capella introduction. Houston extends a vow of eternal love even as their relationship ends, distilling the queer trope of desire balanced with denial.
Velor tried to capture the feeling of isolation, among other things, in her performance in “Drag Race,” which was a hit.
“I saw the rose petals as a kind of iconography or metaphor,” he told CNN. “The loneliness, the heartbreak, the love, the loss, the grief… I can hear different colors of all of that on ‘So Emotional.’ I wanted to take something as broad as that, and show how it grows as her (Houston’s) performance gets more intense.”
Notably, isolation was also an important part of real life in Houston. The efforts of her record label, Arista, to make her into an acceptable pop character, into an American favorite, took their toll on the singer. She was attacked with claims of having “sold out” to the white mainstream because her music was supposedly too pop, and she was hounded by gossip about her close relationship with her best friend, Robyn Crawford.
(In her extraordinary 2019 memoir, “A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston,” Crawford says that she and Houston had a sexual relationship early in their decades-long friendship, but that the physical intimacy was brief because Houston she was concerned about what the drawn-out trial might mean for her career).
“Houston faced a lot of challenges around her identity,” Foley said, referring to the singer’s battles with her racial identity and sexuality. “There were parts of her identity that she kept hidden and that she struggled with, but there were also parts that we saw at concerts, when she was glamorous.”
Gay people probably relate to this; there are times when we keep our sexuality hidden, especially when doing so can help us avoid danger or scrutiny.
1 of 19 | On February 11, 2012, singer Whitney Houston was found dead in a hotel bathtub in Beverly Hills, California. It marks 10 years since the death of the winner of several Grammy awards. She browses the gallery to see pictures of her throughout her career. (Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) 2 of 19 | The Los Angeles County coroner later ruled the 48-year-old woman’s death an accidental drowning with the “effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use” as contributing factors. In this photo Whitney Houston poses with an American Music Award in 1986. (Credit: Darlene Hammond/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 3 of 19 | The singer won six Grammy Awards and sold 170 million albums, singles and videos throughout her career. In this photo, she appears with her mother, Cissy Houston, in March 1987. (Credit: Vinnie Zuffante / Getty Images) 4 of 19 | Houston poses for a photo in 1987. (Credit: Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images) 5 of 19 | Houston sings the national anthem before Super Bowl XXV in January 1991. (Credit: George Rose/Getty Images) 6 of 19 | Whitney Houston during a presentation in July 1991. (Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images) 7 of 19 | Houston dances with Kevin Costner in a scene from the 1992 film “The Bodyguard.” (Credit: Warner Bros) 8 of 19 | In this photo, Houston appears with her then-husband, singer Bobby Brown, at the Soul Train Music Awards in March 1995. Houston received the Sammy Davis Jr. Artist of the Year award. (Credit: VINCE BUCCI/AFP/Getty Images) 9 of 19 | Houston starred in the 1996 film “The Preacher’s Wife” directed by Penny Marshall. (Credit: Hulton archive/Getty Images) 10 of 19 | In this photo, Houston performs during an AmFar benefit concert in December 1998. (Credit: Larry Busacca Archive/Wire Image/Getty images) 11 of 19 | Here Houston appears at the Grammy Awards in February 2000. (Credit: Scott Gries/ImageDirect/Getty Images) 12 of 19 | Houston at the MTV Music Video Awards in 2000. (Credit: Dave Hogan/Getty Images) 13 of 19 | The singer performed at a Michael Jackson anniversary concert in 2001. (Credit: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/getty images) 14 of 19 | Whitney Houston poses with her cousin Dionne Warwick and producer Clive Davis during the 15th annual Ella Awards in September 2006. (Credit: Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images) 15 of 19 | Houston arrives at a Beverly Hills hotel for a benefit in October 2006. (Credit: Michael Buckner/Getty Images) 16 of 19 | Whitney Houston performed during the German television show “Let’s Make a Bet” in 2009. (Credit: JOERG KOCH/AFP/Getty Images) 17 of 19 | The artist performed at the American Music Awards in 2009, where she won the award for Favorite International Artist. (Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) 18 of 19 | Houston performed at London’s 02 Arena in April 2010. (Credit: Samir Hussein/Getty Images) 19 of 19 | Houston and her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, arrive at a gala honoring David Geffen in February 2011. A year later Houston would die. Bobbi Kristina Brown died years later, on July 26, 2015, due to complications from drug intoxication and submersion in water. (Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
The aforementioned “Love, Simon” sequence is worth spending a little time on, because it crystallizes another aspect of Houston’s queer appeal: the sense of liberation that the singer’s music exudes.
The main character, 17-year-old Simon Spier (played by Nick Robinson), is reflecting on his urge to come out as he indulges in a fantasy. “When I go to college in Los Angeles, I’ll be gay and proud,” he promises. As he sticks a poster of Houston on the wall of his imaginary bedroom, the singer’s 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” plays, a must-have song at gay bars and gay parties. gay dance. Simon imagines what it would be like to finish high school and live a full and happy life as an outspoken gay man, strutting around campus.
Simon’s dream is about release, the freedom he thinks he’ll find if he can get to a place where he can be himself, with Houston’s cheery lyrics as his guide. In fact, it’s Houston’s music that makes Simon’s personal struggles tone down a bit. Of course, liberation is not an experience exclusive to the queer community. But for a community that has long suffered from casual and state bigotry, it resonates in a distinctive way.
Gerrick Kennedy, author of the new book “Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston,” shares some of these sentiments.
“She was the first to do those big remixes in a way that we hadn’t seen from black women,” Kennedy told CNN. “There was an element of performance in a space where queer people, especially black queer people, were able to find freedom and liberation. That is our connection to diva figures – how they make us feel, and it is usually rooted in some form of liberation.”
Kennedy went on to say of the release of 1998’s “My Love Is Your Love” and “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay” (the latter’s remix is a gay anthem, no doubt): “I remember that was the time when I, A queer black kid growing up in the Midwest, who was super oppressive, I felt free.”
So maybe it’s a poignant mix of loneliness and liberation that makes Houston’s sensibility so appealing to queer listeners. After all, at the same time that she recognized that things were not right, she insisted that, in time, they would be.
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ANALYSIS | Why the LGBTQ community loves, and will always love, Whitney Houston – KESQ