The news of Frank Ocean’s most recent blog post has been heartening, sweet, and strange. For those who haven’t heard the news, on July 3, Frank Ocean released a beautiful statement on his blog telling the story of his first love—a person he refers to as “he” and “him.” The response has been lovely. Russell Simmons released a poetic statement in support. Tyler the Creator immediately chimed in to congratulate his Odd Future collaborator on twitter. Experiencing that kind of support is a big deal in any line of work—especially one that is situated so fully in the public eye.
And the news coverage has evolved significantly, even in the first 24 hours of the story breaking. Early reporters like the Grio first ran headlines claiming that Ocean was gay, then that he was bisexual, then simply changed the headlines to things like “Frank Ocean: ‘My First Love Was a Man.’” Even now, reports on the subject vary, with many news outlets still claiming a range of identities: gay, bi, straight, and more.
So bloggers and news outlets haven’t all reached the same conclusion on Ocean’s sexual orientation. That’s for one simple, but easily missed reason: he didn’t cite a sexual orientation. That’s kind of awesome, and definitely radical. And he’s joined and recently preceded by Azealia Banks and fellow Odd Future collaborator Syd tha Kyd. Frank Ocean—as well as Azealia Banks and Syd tha Kyd—are coming out in ways that stand to make significant impacts, both politically and socially.
Dismantling the race wedge.
For years, anti-LGBT organizations have driven a wedge between LGBT communities and communities of color. The National Organization for Marriage, Focus on the Family, and countless other anti-LGBT organizations have run strategies explicitly designed to divide and conquer on issues of LGBT equality and racial justice. And bizarrely, white LGBT people (like me) help our opposition drive that wedge, spreading myths like “communities of color are more homophobic,” claiming that “gay is the new black,” making inaccurate and alienating comparisons between LGBT rights and civil rights movements, and more, all of which we’ve discussed before at You’re Welcome.
Politically, there are all kinds of impacts of this destructive wedge: it stymies opportunities for building relationships between racial justice and LGBT rights movements, much less for building interdependent movements for social justice. It creates a breeding ground for racist assumptions about people of color within predominantly white LGBT communities.
But perhaps most importantly, driving this wedge renders invisible the lives of LGBT people of color, whose identities and families are most at stake when the race wedge is driven. Frank Ocean’s coming out stakes a claim for queer and same gender loving people of color, publicly asserting and affirming their existence, and quietly, but firmly, pushing back on the race wedge. He is joined by some powerful allies: Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Will Smith, Jay-Z, the President of the United States, and many, many more. Between those coming out and allies voicing their support, the race wedge is getting weaker every day.
Many are already discussing what it means for Frank Ocean to come out as an artist in what they describe as a historically homophobic community. I can’t speak to that—as someone who listens to hip hop, but is far from being any part of hip hop communities, it’s not mine to say.
What I can say is to my fellow white queer people and straight white allies: the race wedge is only as effective as we allow it to be. Like any political tactic, it only works when it echoed. The race wedge worked in the wake of Prop 8, not because communities of color voted against marriage equality (they didn’t), but because we kept insisting that they did. In the last few months, we’ve seen record numbers of straight allies of color come out in support of LGBT communities and our issues. That support has always been present. But we, as white queer people, have failed to highlight, celebrate and encourage it.
We can no longer allow the race wedge to be effective. It was never true, and we have to let it die off. Straight allies of color are doing a lot to dismantle that wedge. It is up to white queer people to join in on that work, too. So I hope that, as we continue to discuss Frank Ocean as a hip hop artist and as a newly out Black man, we won’t decide to make him the exception that proves the rule, using the same broad brush strokes that our opponents use to paint a fundamentally false picture of divided communities.
Shifting the focus.
Frank Ocean’s coming out is creating tectonic shifts in how we talk about LGBT people in communities of color, and in hip hop as a community and art form. And he could create important shifts within queer communities, too.
As I mentioned earlier, Frank Ocean & Odd Future’s own producer, Syd tha Kyd, has been out for ages—and she doesn’t identify as a lesbian. “I decided to do it [come out] because I wish I had someone like that [an openly gay female artist] while I was coming up. . . . I wasn’t always this way, this comfortable with myself, and I remember what that was like.” Syd readily describes the day-to-day impact of experiencing homophobia:
I put myself out there because I’m sick of people asking. I’ve been asked it so many times. It’s annoying, it’s like, you can’t answer that yourself? And awkward because it’s not like they’re going up to the other guys in the group and asking if they’re straight. Now I don’t have to answer that question outright. Because I don’t want to. It’s not that I’m not proud of who I am.
Similarly, Azealia Banks’ work and presence is undeniably queer, and she insistently resists the identities that others try to foist on her: “Ms. Banks considers herself bisexual, but, she said: ‘I’m not trying to be, like, the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms.”
So Frank Ocean’s coming out is a major event for hip hop, but it’s important to note that he’s far from the first hip hop artist to come out. The coming out narratives of Azealia Banks, Syd tha Kyd and Frank Ocean are much more reflective of queer identities—that is, nonbinary identities rooted in resistance—than they are of more entrenched gay or lesbian identities. Their coming out asks us to uncouple the idea of who we dance with, sleep with, date and fall in love with from the only social options available: gay, lesbian or bisexual. They require us to grapple with the complexities of our histories, our identities and our hearts. And for many of us, those complexities don’t include lifelong attraction or relationships with only one gender, and they aren’t fully conveyed through the language that’s currently available.
Plus, part of disidentifying with lesbian or gay identities can be disidentifying with whiteness. Historically, after all, white gay and lesbian people have overwhelmingly set the goals, strategies, and yes, the vocabulary, of LGBT movements, expecting that queer people of color (and trans people, and immigrants, and many more) would respond to a movement and community that wasn’t created by or for them, and that actively resisted accountability around racism and xenophobia. Those spaces couldn’t be further from the heartbreaking beauty with which Frank Ocean describes his first love.
And that’s the true core, the deep strength of Frank Ocean’s post: it is exquisitely, excruciatingly human. I hope that, as we continue to celebrate Frank Ocean’s courage, we don’t forget those who came before him, we don’t forget the privilege that each of us bring to the table when we talk about someone else’s identity, and we don’t forget this moment of impossible intricacy. I hope that, moving forward, we all continue to let Frank Ocean define himself.