Whitney Houston soared passed glass ceilings long before the days of social media and market-driven feminism. She is often remembered as an icon in the LGBTQ community, though her identity as “one of us” was never quite confirmed. As whispers surrounded her career, Whitney and her family quickly denounced them. Though her connection with childhood best friend and longtime assistant Robyn Crawford, was undeniable.
For the first time on screen, friends and family of Houston have confirmed her bisexual identity in the newly released documentary “Whitney Houston: Can I Be Me?” In the film, everyone including Whitney’s backup singers to her bodyguard and even Bobby Brown confirm what has long been rumored: Whitney was at times romantically involved with Robyn Crawford.
The pair were inseparable, especially early on in her career. Whitney’s first apartment was with Robyn—after she turned down a basketball scholarship to Monmouth College to become Houston’s personal assistant. A role she would take on for years to come until it’s rumored that she was paid off by the family to leave mid-tour in 2000.
“I don’t think she was gay, I think she was bisexual,” Houston’s long-time stylist Ellin Lavar said in the film. “Robyn provided a safe place for her… in that Whitney found safety and solace.”
Crawford continually tried to get Houston off of drugs, wanted her to go to rehab and take a break from the world tours. But the film shows that everyone around Whitney was an enabler. Bobby Brown actively did drugs with her, Cissy Houston who micro-managed her life and didn’t want to see Whitney halt her stardom with treatment and the many people who filtered in an out of Whitney’s life, wanting something from her and her soaring career.
Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother and gospel singer, had a tight hold on how Whitney was presented to the world. She wanted her daughter to have the fame she never reached in her lifetime. “They wanted to present her as the princess—that’s who White America was presented,” backup singer Pattie Howard said in the film.
In the beginning, Whitney would often thank Robyn in her award speeches but as the singer quickly rose to stardom—rumors started to arise. She was the best-selling female artist of her time and the public had pressing questions.
“They say, ’Hey man, is Whitney gay?’ It was all over the place,’” Arista Records executive said in the documentary. “Rumors had already started about her sexuality. When we traveled, Robyn was with us. You had to get through Robyn to get through Whitney.”
Though Whitney and Robyn collectively dissuaded the rumors by saying they were only friends, the pair remained inseparable.
“She introduced herself as ‘Whitney Elizabeth Houston’ and I knew right away she was special. Not a lot of people introduced themselves with their middle names back then. She had peachy colored skin and she didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met in East Orange, New Jersey.” – Robyn Crawford on when she first met Whitney Houston
“Robyn and Whitney were like twins,” said Kevin Ammons, who did security for Houston. “They were inseparable. They had a bond and Bobby Brown could never remove Robyn. He wanted to be the man in the relationship.” After marrying Bobby Brown, Whitney quickly spiraled into using more and more. Though she simply couldn’t end things with Crawford, even though she was married.
“Bobby Brown and Robyn Crawford were like fire and ice. They hated each other,” adds David Roberts, Whitney’s former bodyguard, on whom The Bodyguard was loosely based.
“They’d battle for her affections. Bobby and Robyn had some physical altercations and there were times where he wasn’t always the winner. But then Whitney would always come and pour oil over troubled waters,” he said. After Crawford resigned as Whitney’s assistant in 2000, Houston’s career seemed to quietly fizzle out. Though she was in and out of rehab centers throughout the early 2000s, people close to her felt there was no bringing her back from a life riddled with addiction.
“I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn’t. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her. Now I can’t believe that I’m never going to hug her or hear her laughter again. I loved her laughter, and that’s what I miss most, that’s what I miss already.” – Crawford told Esquire in an interview after Houston’s death
Even Bobby Brown admits the strong bond Whitney had with Robyn. She was the one person who could get her to stop using and focus on what she loved about life. “I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney’s life, Whitney would still be alive today,” Brown said. “She didn’t have close friends with her anymore.”
But being out was never an option for Whitney. Her mother never liked the closeness between Robyn and her, she wanted Crawford out of the picture. In a 2013 interview with Oprah, Cissy admits that she would’ve “absolutely” had a problem if Whitney had been gay. “Female homosexuality in the black community is never spoken about. Black men, yes; black women, no. Even now,” said family friend Allison Samuels, in the film. The question remains for so many Whitney fans: If she had been able to be out, would she still be with us today?
Crawford’s father Dennis spoke to Radar Online in April saying, “I knew 40 years ago, we all knew. I saw them together.”
“When she told me, there was nothing I could do about it except love her,” he continued. “[Cissy] knew about the relationship with my daughter 25 years ago. Why she would deny it, you have to ask her.”
The raw footage included in “Can I Be Me?” of Crawford and Houston together is heartbreaking knowing that being closeted led to their breakup. The love between the two is palpable on screen and Crawford’s devotion to Whitney and her career is so obvious. This footage of the duo shows a different side of Whitney not before seen in public.
In one clip, you can see Crawford singing every word to hit “If I Told You That,” with a smile on her face as she watches Whitney perform on stage. The irony of the lyrics isn’t lost on anyone: “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.”
Ultimately, “Can I Be Me?” chronicles the tragic tale of a pop star’s rise to worldwide fame that is riddled with addiction and heartbreak. As a viewer, you watch every person in her life focus more on what they could get out of Whitney’s success than how they could care for her mental and physical health. For an artist who crossed all barriers of race, class, sexuality or gender and reached generations of people with her voice, it’s hard to watch her demise on screen.
Though we will never know what life felt like for Whitney and the truth behind so many things, this biopic brought closure to many unanswered questions about Whitney’s reality: from childhood to her untimely death. It shows the pressures she was under as one of the greatest talents of her generation and the factors in her life that ultimately led to her tragic downfall. From the homophobia felt from her community, and likely internalized, to her overbearing mother and her cheating husband, to the pressure to be the perfect pop princess for all of America, while still paying homage to the Black church culture that raised her—Whitney simply couldn’t bear it all.
We all will continue to belt out Whitney’s greatest hits and remember her musical legacy. But we must also not forget the everyday life Houston lived in a world that wasn’t ready for her.
“Whitney Houston died from a broken heart. She died from a broken heart,” said David Roberts.
You can stream “Whitney: Can I Be Me?” on Showtime now. It will air on Sho 2 on September 2 at 12pm, EST.