Comedian Marsha Warfield weighed in on Patti LaBelle’s recent disclosure that Luther Vandross was gay and the black community’s tried-and-true embrace of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The actress, best known for her stint as the stink-faced, no-nonsense bailiff on the ’80s sitcom Night Court, posted a note on Facebook on Saturday saying that when she came out to her own mother, her mom said that she knew, but then requested that her daughter not come out publicly until she was in the ground.
When I told my mother I was gay, she said she knew, and had known all my life.
Then, she asked me not to come out publicly while she was alive.
I agreed, even though the request and her admission were hurtful in ways I couldn’t put my finger on then, and probably haven’t completely worked through now.
But, everybody who knew me, knew I was gay.
The people I didn’t tell knew anyway, and tacitly agreed to pretend that the unacknowledged had been acknowledged and accepted.
Like I’m sure is true for millions of other glass door closeted people.
When I went to bars, which was frequently, I never tried to hide who I was.
So, it was an open secret.
Had I never come out publicly, many, many people would have known.
It would not then have ever really been a betrayal of trust to “spill the beans.”
Because it wasn’t a secret, it was an uncomfortably kept promise to my mother.
But, it was also not the only reason I didn’t come out swinging when she passed.
The fear of the judgment of strangers and their holier-than-thou “shoulds” was at least as big of a burden to bear.
But the “shoulds” that “should” matter don’t.
Nobody should have to hide their sexuality.
No parent should ask their child to.
There should be no shame in being gay.
And, I ain’t mad at Patti LaBelle.
I’m mad at the people who are.
Last week, LaBelle said on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live that Vandross didn’t come out in deference to his mother and his female fans.
Celebrities such as Wendy Williams and others condemned Miss Patti because she supposedly “outed” Vandross, and the debate spilled onto social media. But in my eyes, LaBelle’s words were tempered with love and obvious affection for her “best, best friend.” She said that being closeted was “hard for him.”
As Warfield writes: “Nobody should have to hide their sexuality. No parent should ask their child to. There should be no shame in being gay. And, I ain’t mad at Patti LaBelle. I’m mad at the people who are.”
Warfield is touching on that classic truth: that black people hate when dirty laundry is aired in public. The military doesn’t have shit on us when it comes to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” We know, but we act like we don’t know.
We know that the “passa” likes to rub on women’s legs in the congregation, but we smile in his wife’s face. We know that the well-dressed organist at the church has a male roommate, but walk around like, “If they didn’t say it, it’s not true.”
It is our shame, our deep and abiding disdain for public ridicule, that is sometimes so strong that we would ask our grown children to sacrifice their truth so that we feel more comfortable. This is a form of emotional dishonesty and mendacity. And the thing about dirty laundry is that it begins to fester in the dark and stink up the place.
We need to reckon with that. Like Warfield said, the real shame is that gay people have to play this game for other people’s comfort.