Frank Ocean And How We Discuss Sexuality

Last night, we got a passionate email from reader Denarii about Frank Ocean’s Tumblr post. Denarii writes:

I’m just sending a quick note asking that you guys be mindful of the fact that, although he has “come out” (and even *that’s* possibly arguable), Frank Ocean hasn’t actually come out as anything in particular, from all the accounts I’ve read, including his Tumblr posting. As a bisexual identified person, the media’s erasure is simultaneously disheartening and maddening.

As an organization that I’ve followed for several years and greatly respect for actively attempting to be mindful of the many ways in which oppressed peoples can be made invisible, I know I could’ve just waited and commented on a piece if I felt any erasure was occurring, and understand I hate feeling like I’m being “bossy”, so to speak. But from where I’m standing, if I said nothing and The R posted something that erased the possibility of bisexuality/non-monosexuality, whether I make a comment or not, the damage is already done. I’m not making any assumptions about how he identifies–for all I know, he *is* gay. My only wish is that MSM was as thoughtful and considerate about not making assumptions. Alas, as I’m sure you all well know, things are often made to be straight/gay, black/white, etc. I hate binaries. >_>

Well said. Denarii’s email made me reflect on a few different things. There’s definitely the erasure of bisexuality–while Ocean specifically mentions the women he dated and the man he loved, a lot of reports do just say he’s gay. (Also, his love was also in a relationship with a woman, so there is the possibility that they are both bisexual.) And Denarii was on the mark here–why did coverage default to a binary?

I’ve noticed in my personal life that all my friends don’t necessarily “come out”–over the last few years, a few have just started dating people of the same gender. Most did not announce a change in their orientation. Some identify as queer, while others simply say, “That’s who I fell for.” This isn’t to say that the concept of coming out is “a white thing”–that would be incorrect as well. But rather, the spectrum of ideas discussed is a little broader in communities of color. I don’t normally hear the term “same-gender loving” outside of black and queer spaces. I read about aggressives in Vibe, years ago–I didn’t start hearing the term “butch” until I encountered stories from other communities. So perhaps there’s another element not being considered around Ocean’s conception of self: racialized experiences.

And interestingly enough, there’s the less present (but still represented) idea that Ocean coming out somehow absolves Tyler from Odd Future. Check out this person’s logic:

Secondly, this should dispel all notions that Odd Future, Tyler The Creator in particular, are a homophobic band of lyrical bullies. First there was Sydd Tha Kidd who came out as a lesbian, now Frank Ocean. If Tyler were as horrible of a bigot as he seems on his lyrics, then why would he say that his pal is brave and is proud of his coming out? The outrage to Tyler is sort of like the initial venom spit at Eminem in 1999. Clearly Tyler’s lyrics don’t reflect his true feelings or else he would have reacted differently, right?

Maybe his lyrics don’t reflect how he actually feels. Or maybe he thinks of Frank and Sydd as exceptions. Or maybe he supports individual people but not the fight for rights. Who knows? But we shouldn’t assume anything about Tyler based on simply being friends with Frank Ocean.

And of course, there’s the usual “what does this mean for hip-hop’s homophobia” line of questioning, but for the purposes of this piece, I want to focus a little more on language. How do we discuss something as complicated as sexuality without falling into binaries?

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  • D.B.

    Interesting thoughts on coming out. I think it’s problematic to talk about “racialized experiences” in terms of white and black simply because within each of those supposed groups there are different ethnicities and communities that, in and of themselves, operate differently.

    The experience of a Jamaican-born and raised “black” person who recently moved to the United States is surely different from that of an African-American with regards to coming out. And what about urban vs. suburban communities? How about from generation to generation?

    Perhaps it’s not race that drives certain experiences but rather the social environment of an individual (that may or may not involve people of the same skin color or heritage).

  • Grace

    Okay, so I commented on this yesterday, but apparently it did not go through. Boo. Anyway, I’m the “Denarii” of whom Latoya speaks. Hello! I just wanted to say thanks to Latoya and The R team for posting this. I certainly did not wake up yesterday morning expecting to see my name on the internet outside of my Facebook page, lol. I’m glad that this has created some kind of discussion. I’m going to try to remember as much of what I said from yesterday.

    Since no one seems to have seen it, and since Latoya mentioned the racializing of coming out–am I the only one who saw Media Takeout’s version of this story? Their “article” (if you wanna call it that) is actually how I found out. The title of their piece was (and I’m paraphrasing) “Frank Ocean Comes Out as a Downlow Brother”. Here’s the link to the full piece (I hope I’m doing this right):
    http://cdn.mediatakeout.com/57020/it-s-official-frank-ocean-admits-to-being-a-downlow-brother-he-claims-that-he-fell-in-love-with-a-dude-is-he-talking-about-a-rapper-we-know.html#.T_SLFhVPAjs.facebook
    Really? *side eye* Their reasoning for using the term is because he’s always on Twitter talking about “hoes”, so he’s “obviously” still “messing with” them. *more side eye* >_>
    I also happen to be a cisgender woman of color, who is mostly femme but identifies as gender non-conforming for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I like to occassionally cross dress. That’s where I’m coming from when we’re talking about binaries. I think people are so prone to holding to them for three reasons:
    1) They aren’t complicated. Like being mixed/multiracial–in which you have people who are Black/White, Black/Asian, White/Asian, Black/White/Indigenous American, Latino/Asian, etc.–there is no one way to be non-monosexual. From the words we use to identify (bisexual, pansexual, queer, fluid, etc., as well as those who choose not to label themselves), to how we feel (some people are physically and romantically attracted to both/all genders, but prefer one over the other(s), some are physically and romantically attracted only to one, but still physically or emotionally/romantically attracted to others, plus a bajillion other combinations), and how we behave (celibacy/abstinence, stages of sexual experiences, sexual fantasy vs. reality, etc.), there are so many ways to live. And whether it’s race, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression (transgender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, cross dressing, intersex), people don’t want to deal with what they consider a mess. It’s too hard, it’s too much, it’s too involved–it takes work. So peole resort to those comfortable binaries.
    2) Social control. You’re either this or that–so get in line!! The theory goes, if we’re all kept inside of neat little boxes, it’s easier for patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the like, to reign. When people question or fall outside of those boxes…well you know, things might just start to topple over.
    3) In the case of non-monosexuality and gender identity/expression–plain old biphobia and transphobia. There are plenty of folks who simply don’t care to understand us, like “hardcore” racists and misogynists. It’s as simple as that.
    To answer your second question, “How do we discuss these things?” I think Rachel says it pretty simply–we don’t assume. Period. Of course, I’m a writer and I like to talk, so when I attempted to respond yesterday, I probably wrote about two paragraphs, lol. I would simply say that really, education is needed. We need to be unafraid to think critically and grapple with the complexity of human experience. Personally, I think The Gay Establishment™ needs to take a step in this regard. Bisexual and transgender organizations exist, but LG(BT) organizations are the largest and most influential (thanks to, surprise surprise, decades of erasure and whatnot). But I digress.
    Thanks everyone for contributing! When I sent that email I wasn’t sure if Latoya and Arturo would be mad at me or what, LOL, so it’s nice to see that I’m not the only one thinking about these things. ^_^

  • copper gypsy

    I am really enlightened by this article and appreciate Denarii making the observation, as I was amongst those who labeled him gay; with a big kudos for being so brave. I still consider him the latter, but how he identifies himself (if he so chooses) is less important to me as a supporter of his music. This article is on point and it will make me think and then think again before labeling people. I also love the support of this community on this blog for being so respectful and sharing. Rare in the “comment section” world. WORD!

  • Anonymous

    This hoopla reflects society’s stubborn ignorance about the difference between sexual behavior and sexual/gender identity. Having been in love with or dated a man doesn’t say anything about Frank Ocean’s sexual orientation. If gay men date/marry/have babies with women before they come out, does that make them any less gay? Why do people have such a hard time believing that hetero folks can have same-sex attraction? And why do people still reject bisexual identity as genuine?

    As for the alleged allyhood of Tyler or any of Frank and Sydd’s other colleagues, apologists should be honest already. Plenty of bigots claim oppressed people as friends and colleagues, but still perpetuate privilege-fail and discrimination against a given marginalized community. This fact is so obvious it’s tired.

  • Anonymous

    I hope when he starts doing interviews that he doesn’t even address his sexuality. Eventhough, I think this is a big deal and I would like to hear him speak further on it, I just think he has no interest in being any group’s “poster child”.

  • s. mandisa moore

    Ive always loved Frank Ocean. And I love this post. As a black lesbian, I have always had an issue with the notion of coming out because, to me, it always centered white supremacy. It assumed that one’s (now deviant) sexuality is the most important factor that sumes up their marginalized in a way that is usually true of white bodies, but not people of color. So, I really appreciate how I hear the writer really offering a sound critique of coming out. For me, at the end of the day, it feels very limiting.

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  • Rachel

    We wait to see how Frank Ocean (or any other public figure whose sexuality is in question) chooses to self-identify before we label them.

  • http://twitter.com/TheAshleyxo Leigh

    We really don’t know anything about Ocean’s sexuality at this point, except that he had a relationship with a man. That does not necessarily mean that he identifies as either gay or bisexual. Additionally, I find it problematic that we assumed he was straight, based on pronoun choice in his songs.

    My point is, we don’t know anything. The piece he wrote about falling in love with his friend was quite lovely, though.

    • Phil

      I think it could be considered “problematic” to assume his heterosexuality based on pronoun choice in his songs – maybe – but I think it’s definitely to be expected. And, it may not even be heteronormative to believe that when he continuously sings explicitly about being in love with women, and doesn’t make songs that explicitly involve him loving men, that he’s on the hetero side of the spectrum. It’s one thing to assume about someone’s sexuality without grounds, it’s another to believe what they tell you (or tell the world) until proven otherwise …

  • http://profiles.google.com/annajcook Anna Cook

    I also never really “came out” as anything in particular, other than being visibly in a relationship with another woman, and tend to float between terms (e.g. lesbian, bi, queer, fluid, gay, dyke) with little investment in a single sexual identity marker. I am what I am and who I love. I’ve always thought about it as partly a generational thing those of us in our thirties and younger seem increasingly resistant to fixed sexual identity labels. I’ve never thought about how race might be a factor. It would be interesting to look at how the language used to talk about intimate relationships and identity changes from community to community.

  • Ben

    Thank you for this post! This
    was precisely my concern when I saw the news about Frank Ocean. Media
    outlets were saddling him with the labels of “bi-sexual” or “gay” when
    what he did was proclaim that his first love involved same-gender
    attraction. He didn’t use either label, so why are we using labels that
    he has not chosen for himself? Discourses on Sexuality are so fraught and tricky to navigate.