Much has been said about Frank Ocean in the past two weeks: his debut album, Channel Orange, was just released and has received positive reviews. Perhaps more importantly, this release happened a week to the day after his other newsworthy event, a tumblr post in which he revealed that his first love was with another man (or young man, as they were both 19). He stated,
Four years ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together time would glide. Most of the day I would see him and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence. Until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with that feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life. (frankocean.tumblr.com)
I have to admit, as I read it now, it is a big deal to hear a Black man talk about his love for another (Black?) man. In the words of Marlon Riggs, it feels like a revolutionary act. But I don’t know that it is. Or, rather, I don’t know that how it has been perceived is revolutionary.
Honestly, I knew little about Ocean before July 4th. Still, a couple of days after Ocean’s letter was posted, I wrote about my reaction on my blog, particularly as his declaration related to pride and “coming out.” Frank Ocean’s letter was sweet, it made me happy, but it didn’t change my life as a queer Black woman in my (early) 40s. In spite of this, two things stuck out to me: first, the larger cultural reaction and response to his letter and, second, what impact his letter might have on young, queer people of color.
The hip-hop community spoke up first and perhaps loudest in support of Ocean. dream hampton wrote a letter not only thanking him for his words, but for following in a long hip-hop tradition of not giving a ‘f-ck’ about what others think of you. Russell Simmons tweeted about Ocean’s leadership. Busta Rhymes called him a brilliant artist. And Ne-Yo said something like “That’s cool, now maybe folks should stop calling me gay.” Overall grade? B (with Ne-Yo’s response bringing it down a bit). Other reports followed suit, celebrating his “coming out” and his “bisexual or gay” identity. But, while a celebration of this moment is great, we shouldn’t jump to name his experience.
I don’t aim to categorize Frank Ocean’s sexuality; he stated in the letter that he fell in love with a man. That’s different than “coming out”—and, still different than identifying as gay, bisexual, queer, or same-gender loving. But, as a culture, LGBT identity is rooted in the discourse of “coming out” and, apparently, anything that sounds gay is gay, as supported by the reaction to Ocean’s letter in which he never states that he is gay, bi, or any of the above. hampton refers to him as bisexual (which she asked his permission to refer to him as), Simmons applauded him for “being honest about [his] sexual orientation” and Ne-Yo referenced the whole “coming out thing” in various interviews. And while I applaud these declarations and a larger, overall support, I agree with Summer McDonald at the Black Youth Project that trying to fit Ocean’s experience so squarely in an LGBT identity framework names his experience in a way that ultimately “re-others” him and takes the power out of his words.
And this is an experience that I became acquainted with in my research with queer teenagers of color. One third of the young people in my research for The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back identified as queer, bisexual, lesbian, or gay. The main struggle for these youth—Black and Latino—was not one with their sexuality (however it was defined) or even with their racial (+queer) identity, but rather, with the “coming out” narrative that was supposed to structure their experience. From this vantage point, “coming out” exists as a (white) adult experience. And this is how most teenage queer experiences are read, within an adult framework—much like the “It’s Gets Better” campaign, which combines both an adult framework with celebrity (Dan Savage). And celebrity is an important vehicle in this current moment. I remember vividly, as I recount in the book, when I asked a young, gay African American youth who he looked up to and he replied, “Caushun,” the first out, gay “homo thug” to achieve mainstream success and a record deal—primarily because he complicated and demonstrated the complexity of Black masculinity (it also turns out that Caushun was a fraud). So, I won’t discount the importance of visibility, but in this time of heightened LGBT visibility and celebrity, I will argue for continuing to question the rigidity of our frameworks and naming processes, particularly as we make room for the ever young experience of “queer” for youth of color. In this moment, it is important to allow this generation to continue to articulate and define themselves.
Andreana Clay is Associate Professor of Sociology at San Francisco State University, and author of The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism and Post-Civil Rights Politics (NYU Press, 2012).