Coming Out Stories: On Frank Ocean

10 Jul

By Summer McDonald

Original Published at The Black Youth Project

I’ve spent the last week treading in the liquid of a queer-flavored ambivalence, trying to determine why the Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean coming out announcements mean less to me than other people. I have seen enough episodes of Coming Out Stories and foolishly subjected myself and my partner to the awkward anti-climax of telling my father about my sexuality to know that helping folks who somehow don’t know how to use context clues with declarations of same-gender-lovingness is supposed to make one feel liberated, free, authentic. I know that my role is to stuff this blog entry full of words, symbolic pats on the back of Anderson, of Frank. Each paragraph should serve as a swell of applause for their bravery, I suppose. But there are enough of those posts already. And I try not to be disingenuous. So, I have spent the last week avoiding being pummeled by all of the congratulatory remarks for several reasons: 1. I needed to put words to my own feelings of ambivalence with as little outside influence as possible, 2. I read two responses to Frank Ocean’s apparent coming out and knew that something was terribly awry, and 3. Although I had treated both “announcements” similarly–that is, I made snarky remarks via Twitter and Facebook–I was also told that Frank Ocean’s coming out was more important than Anderson Cooper’s.

Pause.

Now, shrugging off Anderson Cooper’s “The fact is, I’m gay,” remark seems perfectly understandable. After all, I haven’t checked for Anderson Cooper since his coverage of black suffering helped catapult him into media superstardom. Not that he’s the first, but still… He doesn’t need nor does he seek my words of support. Besides, as the phenomenal Phaedra Parks might say, “Everybody [already] knows Anderson Cooper is gay.” Moreover, I find no reason to believe that Cooper’s confirmation does much for social justice. I’ve spoken ad nauseam about privilege: white privilege, male privilege, class privilege. All of which Cooper has. A fact that, in my opinion, undermines most of the significance of one line in an email. Perhaps my imagination is too limited, but I cannot envision the most vulnerable of us choosing to stop being locked away in the proverbial closet because Anderson Cooper just spilled his tea. That said, good job, good effort, Anderson.

My dismissal of Cooper on the technicality of privilege, I imagine, might lead one to think that I find more significance in Frank Ocean’s Tumblr post wherein he discloses that his first love was a man. After all, Ocean is young, black, not BFFs with Kathy Griffin, entrenched in hip-hop, and might have been interviewed by Cooper back in 2005 had he not left his native New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina. Still, I didn’t flinch. I almost treated Ocean’s “announcement” in the same way I reacted to Cooper’s. But since I kept getting hit with waves of reasons why my equation should read: Frank Ocean coming out > Anderson Cooper coming out, I realized that perhaps it might be more beneficial to explain why I cannot properly compute that mathematical sentence.

First, I’m no theorist, but coming out, at least the way it is currently constructed, seems to go beyond articulating a desire to be accepted by others. It’s not simply about wanting an unmediated and honest connection with people (we care about). I say this understanding coming out as a kind of rites of passage, as a story we’re all supposed to tell. “So, when’d you come out?” is such a common refrain among those of us who were allegedly in the closet; it’s seemingly inherent to a gay/queer identity. We discover that we are queer, we tell people or keep the secret, we live on–or not. I know this is an important act for folks. It was important to me, too. However, coming out also seems to work as a plea for the continued recognition of one’s humanity. The reaction to these public, quasi-confessions reveals to me that coming out  seems less about the person revealing the “secret” and more about the response from the people witnessing the emergence from the closet. Coming out seems to be a really dramatic way of humanizing a concept and asking, “Will you still love me…?” Which is to say that it is a tool that tests presumably straight people. By coming out the way that I did, I was essentially testing my father’s capacity to still see me as a human being worthy of love, as I was doing something I thought he didn’t necessarily think any human would naturally do.  And although he is my father, a man whose approval I still thirst for, I now understand my act as one that (temporarily) gave up my own authority to understand myself as a human being with no need for such reassurance. And that’s understandable, but it’s issue-laced. Love is a fundamental right of living beings, no matter their “behavior.” And those of us who operate in a capacity that does not seem normal should not serve as a testing and/or educating ground for those who do. In yet another problematic piece for Time.com, Toure put it this way:

Studies show that people are more likely to be at peace with homosexuality even if they only know homosexuals through parasocial relationships — the sort of one-sided relationships we have with celebrities. It becomes harder to hate gay people when you find them in your living room all the time via Modern Family or Will & Grace. So coming out remains important because the visibility and normality of prominent gay Americans makes life easier for less famous gay Americans, some of whom commit suicide because they fear the life ahead of them.

In other words, coming out is important because it helps straight people stop being judgmental bigots.

Perhaps I am in the minority in this, but this line of thinking is not at all okay. None of my identity serves to make people comfortable nor do I exist to make them better at being people. It’s just not my job. (It’s Google’s.) If coming out is important because of its utility to straight people, then I’d rather not come out. Such an act, in its current manifestation, does nothing to destabilize heterosexuality as a default category that everything else must orient itself around. Furthermore, it becomes the way others test themselves. Which is why, I suppose, I find so little space between those who took up keyboards to douse Frank Ocean with a deluge of words about his bravery and those who took the opportunity to vehemently bash him. Both sides are responding to the same stimulus. But we can only be awakened by such news if we continue to regard heterosexuality as the state of inertia. So when we applaud or express our disapproval in the way that we have, we reify straightness as normal. Social justice, then, should not necessarily lionize coming out, but mitigate the act by articulating an understanding that sexuality is fluid–not something that fetishizes otherness to the extent that it is championed.

Perhaps dream hampton’s letter to Frank Ocean (accompanied by a picture of hampton and Jay-Z, mind you**) best exemplifies my trouble with coming out as we know it:

It’s true, we are a lot alike… “spinning on blackness. All wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to.” In your opening few lines, you simultaneously established your humanity, a burden far too often asked of same sex lovers, and acknowledged that in this age of hyper self- awareness, amplified in no small part by the social media medium in which you made your announcement, we are desperate to share. You shared one of the most intimate things that ever happened to you – falling in love with someone who wasn’t brave enough to love you back. Your relieving yourself of your “secret” is as much about wanting to honestly connect as it is about exhibition. We are all made better by your decision to share publicly.

The first and last lines of this opening paragraph particularly strike me. hampton immediately arrests Ocean’s letter in a kind of self-congratulatory gesture: the quickness with which she takes on Ocean’s language and inserts herself in his story prevents his letter from breathing on its own before she interrupts. Ocean’s declaration gets suffocated by the need to announce that “we” are and/or have been made better people by what Ocean has said. Yet the rest of hampton’s letter, like so many articles and blog posts that have come after it, drown the narrative to which they are responding. In fact, hampton rather presumptuously regards the “he” pronoun in the letter as moot, thoroughly and severely undermining Ocean’s point in a manner that attempts to create a palatable universality–we’ve all been in love–that consequently removes the weight we are to glean from the “confession.” This move not only silences Ocean, but wrests away his authority over his own story to the extent that hampton can now occupy that jurisdiction and thus make a claim about what is important and what is merely “incidental.” Yes, hampton is proud of Ocean for his bravery, but she seems even prouder of those, like herself, who either showed their support for Ocean instantaneously or have taken this as an opportunity to become better people by expanding the limits of their tolerance and/or love. To add, the post ends with an N.B., informing the reader that Jay-Z posted hampton’s letter to his site without hesitation. All of which compels me to ask: Who are we reallyapplauding here? To whom is the coming out act so crucial? And why are we lauding Ocean so?

It’s rather evident that the answer to the last question lies in hip-hop. We’re supposed to care more about Frank Ocean because he’s a young black man on the brink of superstardom who happens to be entrenched within a genre that is regarded as notoriously homophobic. Indeed, hip-hop is homophobic; I don’t argue against that. When an institution is composed of young black men whose sexuality and agency is already compromised, homophobia seems inevitable. I imagine similar kinds of poorly conceived articulations of reactionary masculinity are elicited in other homosocial spaces such as locker rooms and frat houses. What we are left with, then, is blackness. Which leads, yet again, to the idea that black people are somehow more homophobic than others. And I resist that argument. I will not valorize Frank Ocean because I believe that his counterparts are more homophobic than men of the same age with less melanin. And I think this impulse to add grandiosity to this alleged coming out moment is predicated on that opinion. So much so that we’ve assigned sexuality onto Frank Ocean when he didn’t even really come out. He told us that his first love was a man, and even that was more than likely a response to some lyrics which left many wondering. Yet we are so busy searching for a “just how homophobic is hip-hop?” test case and so consumed with fixing an identity marker on something that is so unstable and fluid that we forget that small point. Ocean’s post could have less eloquently been written as, “The fact is, I fell in love with a dude once.” Nonetheless we, those of us who do not identify as heterosexual especially, are so thirsty for these moments in which we can prove our humanity to the world; we are so distracted by congratulating Jay-Z, et. al. for such public open-mindedness that we’ve forgotten who we’re talking about in the first place.

And so, my decision to shrug can be whittled down to my choice not to congratulate the masses for their apparent liberalness through their decision to still listen to Frank Ocean, nor scapegoat hip-hop as peculiarly homophobic. Those arguments are not enough for me to add value to Ocean’s letter. What I can say, however, is that if we are to regard Ocean’s Tumblr post as a significant moment, it isn’t because of his sexuality. It’s not because we’ve found a new mascot. It’s because a young, black man, presumably raised upon a diet that included Biggie, ‘Pac, and yes, Jay-Z, publicly and eloquently emoted about his love for another. In a milieu where “we don’t love these hoes” is a thoroughly banal assertion, where black men must comport themselves as emotionless and hypermasculine as product of racism and a method of survival, Ocean’s bravest admission was that he was vulnerable, that he loved someone. When the mantra of your adolescence is big pimpin’, fuckin’ bitches and getting money, the most revolutionary thing you can do is love another and say so. Frank Ocean loved. And he told us. That is what we should we applaud. That is where we should find value. For that is the true revelation.

**dream hampton’s original post, which originally appeared on Jay-Z’ site, features a picture of Frank Ocean. However, sites, like GlobalGrind, that chose to re-post the letter exchanged that picture for one of hampton and Jay-Z. GlobalGrind was where I read the letter, so I chose to cite it in my piece.

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20 Responses to “Coming Out Stories: On Frank Ocean”

  1. Sharon Johnson July 10, 2012 at 7:45 AM #

    Wow. I get this. Your perspective is totally unexpected but also totally on spot. I believe coming out stories are important and The act of coming out is necessary and prerequisite to total self-acceptance. My coming out was about getting an answer to the question, “Do, can you still love me”? More to the point, I wanted to know IF I was even lovable. Had I morphed into a totally alien being that was so strange even my own mother could not see, understand and certainly not love me. But as much as it was a cry for love and acceptance from others, it was also a declaration of love for myself. “I will love me even if you won’t/can’t/dont” became my mantra. it was the beginning of a love affair with myself that has continued until this day. Our coming out my result in straight people becoming more tolerant, but it should not be the reason we come out. We do it for ourselves and those we love. My life is too big, too powerful, too full and too complicated to be lived in the space of a closet. I live and love out loud!

  2. Darryl July 10, 2012 at 8:13 AM #

    thank you for posting this. i’ve been trying to find a parallel voice that treated these acts appropriately.

  3. sistaoutsider July 10, 2012 at 8:25 AM #

    Thanks so much for this perspective. I agree with the previous commenter, but I also honed in on another aspect of your post. You ask “Who are we really applauding here? To whom is the coming out act so crucial? And why are we lauding Ocean so?”

    I think this is my problem with this entire narrative. While I am grateful that Ocean’s quasi-coming out letter has restarted this dialogue, I’m a little bothered by all of the attention that he is getting because he is a celebrity of sorts. I’m wondering how many of the hip-hop moguls, bloggers, writers, whomever, are applauding and welcoming their LGBT (and yes, especially the T), neighbors, family members, co-workers, etc., when they are made aware (either by them coming out or through other means) that they are LGBT or non-hetero-conforming. I’ve seen so many posts on Ocean’s letter and even though I blog on issues of sexuality and race myself, I’ve been loathe to write about this because I’m quite ambivalent about it. And because I’m certain that those who find the attention given to this story less than compelling might be considered “haters” or some such silliness.

    I also wonder how gender, (or dare I say, male privilege), plays into this, as I’ve yet to see this embrace of our dear Black lesbian, bi, or trans*sisters; this “coming out” praise seems to targeted at gay men almost exclusively. Of course, class status plays into this as well, most of these embraces are by “stars” who seem to embrace from a distance, if you will. The conversation, as you mentioned, seems to be focused on who is doing the embracing, (in this case hip-hop), instead of the fact that the embrace needs to be more wide-spread, and not localized to those whose music or television show we like.

    What I’d like to see is folks like Hampton and Jay-Z working to help LGBT homeless youth of color, or giving the nod of recognition to their Black lesbian neighbors when they see them on the street. Those acts might be more indicative of the love of which you speak, since those acts can also be done privately, intimately. Embracing our LGBT celebrities when they come (or not) is fine, but wouldn’t it be so much more meaningful if we embraced the LGBT kin whose names we don’t know?

  4. Doyin Oyeniyi July 10, 2012 at 8:55 AM #

    There was something oddly self-congratulatory in some of the responses I Frank Ocean’s letter. Which is why I got over them rather quickly.

    This is an interesting take about coming out that’s never even crossed my mind before. But it does remind me of a few projects I’ve seen (probably on tumblr) that have addressed the privilege of heterosexuality with questions such as “So when did you tell your parents you were straight?”

  5. emalexander July 10, 2012 at 9:04 AM #

    This…makes so much sense. I’ve heard far more about the celebrities gushing with support for Ocean than I have actually heard from him talking about writing this letter, not only because they are clamoring to show how accepting they are, but those reporting about his “coming out” are also trying to show how accepting they and the media are. I was also thinking a lot about how his letter wasn’t about being gay, it was about being in love. Partially because of the way this story has been in the media, I haven’t read the letter, but I don’t think he said he was gay or made a point to highlight his sexuality at all–as you pointed out, he says he is in love, and the object of his love happens to be another man. I hadn’t thought about this event in the way you outlined, but I noticed that I wasn’t as excited as my peers about it. More than once I entered into conversations about how Ocean is gay and hip-hop is finally breaking down homophobia, and I couldn’t do much more than express my ambivalence, and this could be why.

    • emalexander July 10, 2012 at 9:05 AM #

      sorry–I haven’t read the letter in its entirety.

  6. @aliciafiasco July 10, 2012 at 1:39 PM #

    Where do I even begin?! I’ve been saying from day one that Frank never actually “came out” and even if he wanted to, he doesn’t need to. No one needs to declare their sexuality for the world. The act in and of itself is repressive. Not only did we all know that Anderson Cooper was gay, we pretty much already accepted it. And those who don’t, no one needs their validation any way. Point is, Frank opened up about a very personal experience, not making any declarative statements about his sexuality and left the door open for interpretation. That act alone, of being open and expressive, for a young Black male is refreshing and commands respect. My crush on him has only worsened as a result. Frank obviously knew what was at stake, admitting to having feelings, let alone for another man is so taboo when it comes to black men, but you are so absolutely right to point out that Black people are not necessarily the pioneers of homophobia, since commercial Hip Hop is a glaring (North) American product and serves as a microcosm that reveals all the patriarchal hogwash we’re fed each day. At the end of the day, I love to hear a Black man talk about love (and rejection), candidly, honestly and maturely. That is all. Thank you for writing this post. I was starting to think I was the only one who sees that Frank did not “come out” of anything. *Standing ovation*

  7. Blu July 10, 2012 at 2:16 PM #

    My initial reaction to Anderson Cooper was “meh” or “that’s nice. Not surprising, or earth shattering but nice for him.” I didn’t know who Frank Ocean was when his news first broke. My first response was “oh..new hip hop artist, interesting.” Does seem like this will make him infinitely better known. So now coming out is the A&R strategy? Hmmm. I struggled with my own cynicism.

    Then I realized he was a part of the Odd Future collective. And my cynicism took even stronger root. The same “faggot” wielding violence, rape, literally crazy music group that is the darling of all so called “serious” music fans right now? Really? Okay. Cynicism 1, compassion 0.

    I cannot pretend that it does not matter that a famous black man who will likely ride the coat tails of Beyoncé, Jay-Z and the other anointed elite of music culture into staggering fame and stardom may be gay. His talent alone may have been enough, but with this mea culpa. Fame is all but guaranteed. And while I would want it to be otherwise, the vast majority of people, of all color, are sheep-like. And fear the unfamiliar. And kill, beat and correctively rape the unfamiliar. Becoming familiar with same sex loving famous non-scary black people normalizes queerness. And normal unfortunately may equal less hate beatings and shootings and attempts to religiously reshape “our” normal into something less scary for them.

    So it matters. It shouldn’t. Queer people shouldn’t have to prove our worth to the straight world. Any more than black people should have to prove our non-shiftless/welfarecheckcollecting/prisondestined humanity to whites. But familiarity breeds a certain amount of safety. And for that..for helping to usher that movement along. Compassion has to win out. At least for me.

    • tiffany July 11, 2012 at 7:46 AM #

      It may be worth noting that Odd Future has a lesbian member, Syd tha Kid. From what I hear, she uses misogynist language when discussing her objects of desire. So Odd Future is at least a little bit accepting of queerness. But I suspect from their use of “faggot,” that they have a very real problem with femininity.

      • Blu July 11, 2012 at 10:51 AM #

        I agree.

        I’m familiar with her..and her sub-sub group “the Internet.” I was actually really taken by her as an idea. I checked out the video and even watched some of her YouTube home video type movies about the travails of being an artist. The “cocaine” video was a bit much for me.

        I think Odd Future highlights a contradiction that Black Americans and women in general have had to contend with for melena. That racism and misogyny and even homophobia can be just as easily perpetuated by members of the group, as by the larger, white, straight, racist community.

        Is it is self hate? I don’t know. Perhaps power really knows no limits as far as who can wield it? Maybe just because you are queer, it does not mean that you haven’t been indoctrinated with and consumed the same anti-queer, anti-other messages as the larger society.

        For example, thinking of the traditional gender construct of “female” as “weak ” or “inferior” is very prevalent in the lesbian/queer community. Wanting to distance oneself in dress, behavior and mindset from this weak thing called the “female” is a deeply rooted notion reflected in traditional masculinity and hip hop culture in general. So being the “butchy” looking lesbian in an “Odd” collective who verbally seeks to at once advance an “other” dialogue, while diminishing and devaluing the traditional “female” is an interesting artistic choice.

        The jury is still out in my mind on Odd Future. At the moment, I cannot give my attention to open and high level of misogyny and debasement of the “sacred” feminine that I hear in their music. I happen to place a high value on all things female. So they are not on my playlist.

        Just on my radar.

  8. Dee July 10, 2012 at 4:44 PM #

    I really enjoyed reading this post and hearing your perspective! When I heard this “news” I was expecting Ocean’s “coming out” to be some sort of press release stating that he was gay or something, but as you pointed out his tumblr letter was nothing more than a declaration of his love #period. It just so happens that the object of his love was a man. Although I share your ambivalence, I have to admit that I was enlightened by the way you described coming out and the purpose that it serves for all people involved. I appreciate the way you suggest that the act of coming out seems to be more centered on the receiver and their reactions and not so much the sender. So I thank you for this post and for raising my level of consciousness.

  9. Joshua July 11, 2012 at 12:08 AM #

    I do agree that Ocean did not literally come out. I do agree with your discontent and your weariness, but what I get from this is that there is some sort brushing off that fact that at the very least it is a step forward. you know I agree partly with what she is saying…. he did not actually come out but it is a step forward nevertheless. You say that people come out to make other people feel better, other straight people feel better… but at the end of the day what do you want? how can we change the fact that it takes coming out in order to change society. it takes standing up and “coming out” in order to propagate change. It took african americans to “come out” to come out a proclaim there blackness in order to see change. We had to march on streets, face police brutality and violence from racist groups. With every major movement people had to ” come out” and proclaim their worth and right to be seen and heard, and accepted. Women had to ” come out”, even Margaret Thatcher who was very much against supporting feminist initiative, at the end of the day had to ” come out”. She had to assert that women could and did have capacity to take one a historically male role. Whether people verbally do it or symbolically assert who they are, society cannot change with out such steps.

    • Blu July 11, 2012 at 10:52 AM #

      Very well said.

    • wriggles July 12, 2012 at 8:21 AM #

      The coming out metaphor doesn’t work for those you can see on sight. For them its more about spreading their consciousness of themselves or (shift in that) to others.

      • wriggles July 12, 2012 at 8:30 AM #

        I also have to agree that it felt like Ocean was concentrated on same sex love rather than aligning himself with the tag gay which many feel has some cultural baggage to which they cannot relate.

        I only recently caught up with the Odd Future collective and I found them, especially their lead singer engagingly playful with their performance of gender shall I say.

  10. sharon July 11, 2012 at 7:20 AM #

    This was an excellent read – thank you for providing an alternative viewpoint. Many of your points really resonated with me, including the statement that Ocean’s expression of love is itself to be applauded. However, I think the point you made that, “This move not only silences Ocean, but wrests away his authority over his own story to the extent that hampton can now occupy that jurisdiction and thus make a claim about what is important and what is merely ‘incidental.’ ” is undermined by the last few sentences of your piece in which you also make judgments about which aspects of Ocean’s declaration are “That is what we should we applaud. That is where we should find value. For that is the true revelation.”

  11. elizabethrosetransgirl July 17, 2012 at 5:05 PM #

    Thank you very much for making me look at coming out in a new way. I found this post particularly enlightening.

  12. David Smith July 18, 2012 at 7:26 AM #

    I have been sitting with the Frank Ocean story for a few days now and your take is refreshing. I Life Coach a few clients here in Atlanta who are struggling with either coming out or with children who have come out and this narrative is going to be apart of the discussion with my clients. Thank you so much for all you do.

  13. caramellow July 28, 2012 at 6:23 AM #

    That’s an interesting perspective on Frank Ocean’s announcement. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true that most people wanted to discuss the news in terms of how they felt about what he said and their stance on LGBT issues in general, rather than let Frank have his moment. It must feel good for him to have had an opportunity to tell this story, though, rather than carry it around inside while he works his way through the homophobic hip-hop world.

    The thing that has bothered me is that people have missed the fact that, as you say, he didn’t really “come out”–he just said he loved a man once. There wasn’t enough context in his letter to know what that means to him as far as how he lives his life today. The running public discussion is about him being gay and people’s opinions on that, and that may or may not even be the appropriate discussion to have. Another example of people shaping his news to their beliefs and expectations.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. On wearing headphones « Feminist Music Geek - July 17, 2012

    [...] a conduit between unfamiliar texts and interpersonal relations. I was wearing headphones when Frank Ocean came out. I used my headphones to take in Planningtorock’s amazing “Patriarchy Over and [...]

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