On last night's Unsung, TV One's Behind the Music for R&B and hip-hop acts that never quite crossed over into pop megastardom, New Edition's Johnny Gill discussed his life and career. The show regularly examines gay rumors that its subjects have faced (Freddie Jackson and EPMD's Erick Sermon both denied such rumors on past episodes), and Johnny Gill's profile was no exception. That's doubly unsurprising given the reach of the rumors that he and his good friend Eddie Murphy were romantically involved. As usual, Gill denied that there was any truth to the talk, calling himself, somewhat hilariously, "150,000 percent heterosexual."
Interestingly, he added, "In some strange way, it was kinda like some kinda lesson that was learned. I mean, we used to all sit around laughing and making gay jokes. As I got older and realized it was like hey, that's not cool."
In the clip above, it's hard to parse out just why Gill is so fervent in his denial of the rumors — is it the general idea of being misrepresented, injured masculinity or the taint that the gay association could possibly put on his career? (A pull quote seen during the clip — "I'm 100% all man" — would seem to suggest the middle option.) It's something of a complicated mixture of all of the above, I learned last year when I interviewed Gill for a story that was eventually killed. He told me that the malice that accompanies these gossip reports bothers him: "I look at how the media will assume the lowest hit you can give to a heterosexual is, 'Oh, that motherfucker is gay,' as if that's a disease. They're using it as an insult."
If we assume that he is straight as he claims, his narrative of being sexually mislabeled in public is a strange one that only few can claim. I don't think of "gay" as an insult, and I admire those like James Franco who seem entirely unfazed by such gossip. That said, I can also see how consistently being mischaracterized becomes frustrating. More than anything, I found Gill's situation fascinating, especially when he explained the aforementioned notion of karma as it applied to his past homophobia:
As a kid growing up, I remember how we'd talk about other kids who were different, how they were gay and all that stuff. You don't realize what you're doing and how much it can affect people as kids. You don't think about repercussions. I wonder if [the gay rumors were] God's way of going, "I'll pay you back." This taught me a valuable lesson: To not be gay and feel the effect of how people look at you [when they think you are] when you walk into a room. To have to deal with that in some ways, I've had the experience.
Though he is still palpably affected, Gill's is among the most measured and humbled responses to these kind of rumors that I've heard.