“Whitney: Can I Be Me?”: The Homophobia That Killed Whitney Houston

A new Showtime documentary traces the downfall of a legend.

Whitney Houston is an undisputed gay icon, but her status as part of the LGBT community itself has always been relegated to whispers rather than acknowledged truth. A new documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me?, is the first to present anyone close to the late pop star who identifies her on the record as bisexual. In it, friends and family—including husband Bobby Brown—acknowledge her one-time romantic relationship with Robyn Crawford, an out lesbian.

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Premiering tonight, Can I Be Me? is a celebration of Houston’s decades-long career, but it largely focuses on the life she lived privately—The highly controlled atmosphere she existed in dictated by her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston.

Cissy tells the camera she taught her daughter every thing she knows, a sentiment she’s long expressed and, others say, one inspired by her failure to become more of a star herself. Instead, director Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac) suggests, Cissy put all her energy into Whitney and worked alongside record execs to make sure her daughter’s early records were accessible. (Read: didn’t sound “too black.”)

“They wanted to present her as the princess—that’s who White America was presented,” backup singer Pattie Howard says in the film.

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

Houston would eventually reject some of the demands other people put on her— Can I be Me?’s title is a phrase the Grammy winner would frequently utter when she felt she was being pushed away from authenticity.

“That was the conundrum,” says a drummer who worked with Houston. “Like ’Dammit, I have made all this money and made all these people happy and I still can’t be me?'”

One thing Houston was persistently dissuaded from was her relationship with Robyn Crawford, a longtime friend she met through her brothers in 1979. An interview from the late ’90s that’s featured in the film sees Crawford laying casually on a hotel bed, describing their relationship.

“We have a friendship—that’s our foundation.”

In a A 1987 profile in Time, both Houston and Crawford were asked if they were a couple. They both denied the claim.

Says Robyn: “I tell my family, ’You can hear anything on the streets, but if you don’t hear it from me, it’s not true.’ ”

Whitney also alludes to family: “My mother taught me that when you stand in the truth and someone tells a lie about you, don’t fight it. I’m not with any man. I’m not in love. People see Robyn with me, and they draw their own conclusions. Anyway, whose business is it if you’re gay or like dogs? What others do shouldn’t matter. Let people talk. It doesn’t bother me because I know I’m not gay.”

Broomfield and Dolezal delve into Houston’s relationship with Crawford early on, and it looms large throughout Can I Be Me?. People in Houston’s life—musicians, friends, security guards—talk openly about how close the two were. Houston’s first apartment was with Crawford, who left a basketball scholarship at Monmouth College to become Houston’s personal assistant.

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

In the beginning, Houston frequently thanked Robyn in acceptance speeches. But after her self-titled debut became a smash hit—the best-selling solo album ever by a woman at the time—the public demanded to know more about her, and the gay rumors started.

“They say, ’Hey man, is Whitney gay?’ It was all over the place,'” an Arista Records executive says. “Rumors had already started about her sexuality. When we traveled, Robyn was with us. You had to get through Robyn to get through Whitney.”

He notes that music programmers are mostly straight guys who are “99.9% homophobic.” The idea that Houston might not be into men? “They had a field day with that.”

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

Talking to Katie Couric, Houston attempted to clear up the chatter: “This wasn’t her world,” she said of Crawford. “I brought her into this madness.”

“She goes ’Why am I the target? What did I do?’ I said ’You’re my friend… You play basketball. They think you’re a man, I don’t know!’ She’s a damn good basketball player, she can beat any guy there is,” Houston adds with a nervous laugh. “She’s a very tall very broad women. She’s been my friend for years. I don’t know — we just stuck it out.

But Cissy, among others, was angry about the two women’s closeness, and campaigned hard to get her Crawford out of their lives.

Allison Samuels, A Houston family friend, speaks frankly in the film about the concern over Houston’s sexuality.

“Her mother was very much against it. [Bisexual record producer] Clive [Davis] was very much against it. It wasn’t cool to have a lesbian affair,” she says. “I always think if she were an artist today, she’d be fine. Everything would be lovely. She probably would still be here. But back then, there was this tremendous emphasis on being this perfect girl.”

Samuels adds she was unnerved how the family focused on the possibility of a queer relationship more than Houston’s substance-abuse problems.

“You have this family riddled with drugs and yet homosexuality is what you want to focus on. You would have had a better time, probably, trying to handle those drugs. But I think that fierce religion Cissy had was very important to her. [The rumors] had people talking; it had the church talking. She’s an elder in the church, a trustee, and your daughter’s a homosexual.”

The very topic was taboo, says Samuels. “Female homosexuality in the black community is never spoken about. Black men, yes; black women, no. Even now.”

The dynamic changed once Houston met Bobby Brown at the 1988 Soul Train Awards. Her bond with Brown was different, but she wasn’t ready to give Crawford up, either.

“Robyn provided a safe space for her. She loved her, cared for her, was a friend to her, and didn’t want to ever disappoint her,” says Samuels. “In that, Whitney found safety and solace. I don’t think that [Whitney] was gay; I think she was bisexual… Whitney loved to be held and she loved to be embraced and she wanted to feel protected.”

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

Bobby Brown confirmed his wife’s bisexuality in his 2016 memoir, Every Little Step. “I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney’s life, Whitney would still be alive today,” he told and told Us Weekly. “She didn’t have close friends with her anymore.”

But while Houston was alive, Brown and Crawford had a contentious And competitive relationship, one that ultimately led to Crawford leaving the Houston camp for good.

“Robyn and Whitney were like twins. There were inseparable,” said Houston’s security guard David Roberts. “And everybody knew the power that Robyn had… They had a bond and Bobby Brown could never remove Robyn from the relationship. That was part of his frustration, because he wanted Whitney Houston to love him as the man of the relationship. He wanted Whitney to remove Robyn from their relationship and Whitney didn’t want to do it, because Robyn cared for Whitney, probably more than she would care for anybody.”

“I kind of know what Whitney wants to go on around her,” Crawford says in the archival interview. “And sometimes it’s a little difficult to convey that to people; you just have to go and do it yourself. So most people would say I’m just about everywhere.”

Roberts says Brown and Crawford would get into “physical altercations,” some Brown didn’t win.

“They hated each other. They would battle for her affection; they would battle for her attention.”

Behind-the-scenes tour video shows an awkward moment when Brown, posing for the camera, attempts to put his arm around Crawford and wriggles to get out of his grasp.

It’s clear she’s uninterested in clowning around with him, pretending to be cool for anyone’s sake but Houston’s.

Brown was also interviewed for Can I Be Me? but, similar to Cissy, uses most of his time to talk himself up. (“I’m the original Bad Boy!”). It’s excruciating to see so many people close to this gifted but troubled artist seem more concerned about what she could do for them than her mental and physical health.

They ignored the woman behind the powerhouse talent, who was fading away with a broken heart and growing addictions to cocaine and crack.

Roberts says Crawford was one of few people who tried to keep Whitney off drugs. “They had dozens of arguments over Whitney getting high.” He was ultimately fired for filing a report about her drug use after a train-wreck tour.

Clips of Crawford and Houston are bittersweet, as their devotion to one another is obvious. Crawford is shown in front of barricades, close to the stage at a Houston show, clapping and singing along to “If I Told You That.” The song, originally recorded as a duet with George Michael includes the line “I know that we were just friends/But what if I decide to bring some things in/I hope it won’t offend the trust/We have cause I don’t want this to end.”

When Crawford finally ended her connection with Houston after more than two decades of working and living side-by-side, Houston reportedly spiraled, turning to drugs even more as a crutch.

“I assumed they paid her off,” Samuels says of Crawford. “But she disappeared. I never saw her again and she was everywhere with her before. I think they prevented it. I think they knew they could never connect again. It had to be ’Bobby and Whitney,’ this family unit.” Samuels insists Crawford’s removal was “the downfall of Whitney.”

“Robyn was the person who was keeping her together. I think that’s why the drugs became so important to her.”

There is a devastating irony now to lyrics like “Learning to love yourself/it is the greatest love of all.”

Can I Be Me? inevitably tells a tragic story: The demise of one of the world’s greatest singing talents done in, Broomfield maintains, by a lack of self-esteem and support. In one scene, Cissy is seen talking to Oprah Winfrey about her own memoir, Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss, and the Night the Music Stopped. Winfrey asks if her daughter had a romantic relationship with Crawford, and Cissy answers that she didn’t really know. But when Winfrey asks if it would have bothered her if she had, Cissy quickly replies, “Absolutely.”

Crawford has largely stayed silent about her time with Houston. She’s now married to Lisa Hintelmann, Head of Talent and Entertainment Partnerships at Audible.com. Hintelmann was formerly at Esquire, where Crawford published the only statement she’s ever given about Houston after her passing: “People thought they had to protect her,” she said. “She hated that. And that’s what people don’t understand: She was always the one doing the driving. Someone just called and told me that the family kept Whitney from seeing her. Nobody kept Whitney from doing anything. She did what she wanted to do. When people left her or were told to leave, they could never believe that Whitney would never call them—but she never did. She was working hard to keep herself together, and I think she felt that if she admitted any feeling of sadness or weakness, she would crumble.”

Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

Other depictions of Houston’s life (including the Lifetime biopic Whitney) hint at Crawford’s role in the singer’s life, but focus more on Brown’s influence.

Like biopics and tell-alls, documentaries can only tell so much of a person’s story. But Can I Be Me? reveals some hard truths about Whitney Houston, and the factors that contributed to her downfall, including the biphobia she faced from her circle and the internalized homophobia she may have poisoned herself with. That pressure to be the perfect pop princess, the one White America could buy into and that Black America was expected to support, meant doing right by an envious mother, by a philandering husband, by her church, record executives and her fans. It proved too much for one person—even a superstar like Whitney Houston—to handle.

Whitney: Can I Be Me? is a hard watch, but a worthy one. Whitney Houston leaves behind a legacy of incredible music and live performances, but the reality she lived every single day shouldn’t be forgotten, either.

 

 

Whitney: Can I Be Me? premieres Friday, August 25, at 9/8 on Showtime.

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.
@trishbendix