Four on Four: Keith Boykin on Luther Vandross


By Editors

We asked four of this year's 2006 Out 100 honorees to tell us which late, great member of the LGBT community influenced their lives the most.

Luther Vandross may seem like an unusual choice for a list of inspirational gays and lesbians from the past. That's because Luther never publicly said he was gay.

When BET asked Vandross about his sexuality in a 2002 interview, the R&B recording artist simply said it was none of their business. Many of his fans assumed that meant that he was gay. Straight men almost never miss an opportunity to confirm their heterosexuality. But Luther never came out of his closet.

Forget closets: Even today Luther remains my favorite singer of all time. Of the 38 Luther Vandross songs on my iPod, I've rated 10 of them with five stars. No other recording artist comes close.

The one and only time I met Luther was during a lunch visit to Los Angeles's famous 'Rosco's Chicken and Waffles' restaurant back in the 1990s. A Rolls Royce pulled up outside the door, and out walked Luther, accompanied by a flamboyantly dressed man that my lunch partner and I assumed to be gay. No surprises there: The singer's sexuality was an open secret in the black community.

A few eyebrows were raised in 1994 when Luther remade Roberta Flack's famous song 'Killing Me Softly.' The lyrics spoke about a man 'strumming my pain with his fingers,' but Luther's fans (correctly) explained that the man in the song was a musician, not a love interest.

A few months after he died in July 2005, The Advocate and Out magazines finally told us what we already knew'that Luther was gay. The 54-year-old recording artist who had never married was finally out.

Listening to the words of Luther's 2001 song 'Say It Now,' I think he was sending a message about his own life's struggle. After warning his listeners, 'Don't make the same mistake like I did,' Luther tells them what he may have told himself as well: 'You can't turn back the hands of time. If you get the chance, do it right. Let it out, say it now.'

When I speak openly about my experience as a black gay man, I often think about Luther Vandross. I can only hope that my story will help to create a world where, one day, a successful black gay recording artist won't have to live his life in the closet. I think Luther would have wanted that too.