Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Entering ‘the Life,’ after death

While waves of celebrity deaths have washed across Hollywood the past few years, a new trend involving the bygone rich-and-famous has emerged at the dawn of 2018: gay ghosts. The surviving peers of deceased stars have been reminiscing about their old friends with fond indiscretion, proving the grave isn’t the airtight keeper of secrets as hyped.

Lost in a quaint memory about how she met Luther Vandross, Patti LaBelle seemed to forget she was on national television when she replied to a question from Bravo’s Andy Cohen about why Vandross stayed in the closet his entire public life.

“It was basically, he did not want his mother to be — although she might have known — but he wasn’t going to come out and say this to the world,” LaBelle answered candidly. “And he had a lot of lady fans, and he told me that he just didn’t want to upset the world.”

Few were surprised by LaBelle opening one of the most transparent closets in pop culture, but less were prepared for the five-alarm interview Quincy Jones gave to Vulture magazine, where the legendary producer burned down Hollywood closets as he described Marlon Brando as so mannish that, “He’d fuck a mailbox!”

“He’d fuck anything. Anything!” Jones said. “James Baldwin. Richard Pryor. Marvin Gaye.”
Brando’s romps with Baldwin and Pryor were unsurprising, and as for the mailbox, I’ve met few men who haven’t succumbed to the advances of a creviced inanimate object. But this was the first suggestion I’d heard about Marvin Gaye partaking in same-sex copulation, and some of my favorite love songs were keyed in newly flirtatious notes.

It’s generally accepted that no one deserves to be outed as gay or bisexual unless that individual is working against LGBT equality, but there’s no consensus on revealing the homosexual experiences of the deceased. The reaction to LaBelle and Jones showed many instinctively believe spilling a friend’s secrets not only violates the outing code, but exposes a departed loved one to predatory gossiping.

Debates about a celebrity’s sexual orientation are not new to 2018, as there have been posthumous outing campaigns for everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Freddie Mercury. Amazingly, Mercury’s bandmates continue to insist the lead singer of Queen never confirmed his homosexuality, so they’ve never considered him gay, and would appreciate if the rest of us didn’t, either.

Their position betrays the absurdity of declaring a dead person’s sexual orientation off limits, something I saw primarily among LGBT folks recently. We’re open to receiving news about John F. Kennedy and Michael Jackson being junkies, and the many colorful and mundane parts of historic figures’ lives that help us understand them better, but consider it too tawdry to recognize that Freddie Mercury and Luther Vandross enjoyed the romantic companionship of other men.

I’ve read sexual orientation is irrelevant for the deceased, both in response to the Jones interview, and in folks rationalizing why many obituaries for John Mahoney failed to note the actor who played Martin Crane on “Frasier” was openly gay. Whether with deceased-celebrity outings or our movement’s strategic de-emphasis of sexuality: at some point, who LGBT people sleep with has to matter, has to be relevant, otherwise centuries of oppression were endured and overcome for shits and giggles.

“It was hard for him, it was hard,” LaBelle said about Vandross, whom she called “my best, best friend.” History must know that. Luther deserves that, as much as the love he was denied.

People who think sexual fluidity or LGBT life are millenial fads need to know the smoothest icons of their youth were delighting in the activities they so abhor. Little gay boys should understand they can lead with the fierce swagger of Freddie Mercury, and it is natural for their hearts to pulse the emotions about which Luther sang.