Frank Ocean and the Politics of Heartbreak

As you may be aware, singer/songwriter/wolf gang member Frank Ocean recently posted a moving story to his tumblr about his first love, a love that didn’t go the way he wanted it to and left him brokenhearted. The person with whom he was in love is a man.

First I want to say to Mr. Ocean: thank you. Your candor and bravery is inspiring. You give me hope. You have just done a wonderful thing, hopefully for yourself as well as your fans, the music community, and everyone else who may be affected by the door you opened for us into your life.

Frank Ocean is young and his career is hot. It’s still rare for anyone in the public eye to openly discuss homosexual relationships while the pressures of emerging stardom are so strong. Much has been said about the importance of Ocean being an R&B singer who works within hip hop, since hip hop is supposedly so homophobic (something I read today referred to it as a “last bastion” of homophobia, which is a pleasant–if dishonest and racist–way of viewing things.) It is a big deal that a(nother) Odd Future member is open about being gay/bi/queer/pansexual/whatever label Ocean may or may not publicly claim. This will be a very good thing for hip hop, where homophobia, misogyny and other evils are overly tolerated and woven frighteningly deep into the fabric of the culture. This will be a very good thing for the world wider than hip hop, where homophobia, misogyny and other evils are overly tolerated and woven frighteningly deep into the fabric of the culture.

How often to young stars who seem to have not yet reached the height of their fame share that they are not straight? Not counting the kids on Glee or other very explicitly for-the-gays entertainment? Not many. Lance Bass didn’t come out until Backstreet’s heat had had a decade to disperse, Johnathan Knight waited even longer. Now, these boy bands were in their prime back when queer visibility in mainstream pop culture was even lower than it is now, by a lot. Not many would have batted an eye at Ocean-collaborator Tyler the Creator’s constant stream of “faggot” back in the New Kids day, when flagrant homophobia tainted tons of teen entertainment (go back and watch The Breakfast Club and other progressive-ish faves if this doesn’t ring a bell.) Still, I don’t see anyone out in One Direction or other present-day boy bands, despite the obvious marketing coup possibilities. Ditto most other pop genres. Let’s not pin closeting and homophobia on hip hop, hmm? Let’s pin it on a broader fucked up culture, and look at the specific ways it manifests in different cultual locales.

I’ve seen a bunch of sophisticated, metropolitan online commenters claim that Ocean’s sharing is “not a big deal” because of some combination of 1. It’s supposedly not a big deal to the person claiming it’s not a big deal, and said person is clearly the arbiter of big-dealness, not Ocean, grateful fans, the rest of the music industry or the hordes of homophobes now calling for his head (go googling, if you really want) and 2. other (young, even!) hip-hop/R&B stars are out. Maybe. Like Nicki/Azealia Banks/Kreayshawn/did I miss anyone? Didn’t think so. Now, without getting into whether Nicki at least is “really” bisexual (she’s been quoted contradictory ways), it is worth noting that it is more common for women in pop music to at least flirt with “same-sex” desire than for men. It is true that there is a space, however limited, for bisexual/bicurious/queer/whatevs women. Generally a sexy/artsy space, that can turn on a dime into a slutty/devious/flaky space, in keeping with the misogynistic (and homophobic) tropes of biphobia. Women are allowed to express desire for other women sometimes, to a point, because that’s hot in a mainstream, male-oriented porno context which maybe cultural gatekeepers are dismayingly ready to imagine at any given moment. Men can’t express desire for other men because having sex with a man makes you less of one. A woman with queer experience has not necessarily made herself Not A Woman, though she has probably made herself Not A Wife. Witness any horrible debate on bisexuality (bisexuality has to be debated as we don’t yet know whether it actually, really exists, which is cool cuz I often feel in this world like I don’t really exist and I ID bi, so it keeps things consistant.) and you’ll see men saying that yes, they would date a bi lady cuz whoa hot, amirite bruh, they just wouldn’t marry her. You can’t get serious with that kind of girl because she’s a strumpet who will cheat on you and possibly kill you with an ice pick.

Men, on the other hand, who like both men and women are either secretly, truly gay (women aren’t secretly gay as much under patriarchy cuz they need to be available to have sex with the men, who are the center of the universe and reason for all things) and/or going to give their female partners The AIDS. But why would any woman want to be with them anyway, because men who have sex with men are not real men. In fact, they might be a little like women. EWW!

One of the cool things about Frank Ocean’s tumblr post is the conversation it’s provoking. People who may not have thought that much about the reasons behind cultural policing of gender and sexuality now have a great opportunity to unpack the misogyny in homophobia, the sexism of acceptable queer roles for women, what we actually mean when we bandy about pejoratives for gay or queer but don’t mean them that way. Hopefully these conversations may lead more to question categories like “real man” or “real woman”, question their own (sometimes unconscious) homophobia, biphobia, misogyny, transphobia. To recognize how far the toxins spread when we allow cultural policing of sexuality and gender based on hate, fear, disgust.

Discussion around the post also winds around the inadequacy of mainstream-legible sexuality tags, how stifling it can be to carry around an IDENTITY, especially one that was forced on you. Ocean does not call himself gay, bi, or anything else other than loving, hurting, and healing in his blog post. This has not stopped the internet from declaring that he’s either gay or bi (or both), even declaring that Ocean declared the same this in his post. I’m not dredging up links, but google these words and you’ll get an avalanche. Ocean may well identify as bisexual, or gay, or queer, or pansexual, or a combination of these or something else entirely. I’d like to wait to slap such labels on him and let him choose. Or not. He shared an autobiographical story of homosexual love, one that may prove revolutionary regardless of whether he continues to date women or never loves another man again. That’s what’s important. At least to those of us who aren’t Frank Ocean or a potential date.

Part of what’s so huge about Ocean’s post is that it’s so relatable, regardless of one’s sexual orientation or preference. How many of us have been left confused and wounded by love that is not returned, or is but cannot be named? How many of us, LGBTQ or not, have suffered through the ecstatic highs and soul-crushing plunges of mutual affection where one or both of us is in deep denial of what we are really feeling? That we’re not “just friends”? It’s a nearly universal experience, one Ocean powerfully evokes in very few words. So many of us out here can relate to his experience. Hopefully this relating will open a door to imaginative identification, to empathy.


Select Links:

Thank You Frank Ocean: Great, insightful letter from Dream Hampton.

Some retrospectively more hilarious Odd Future lyrics.


About Nicole Witte

I write and make movies.
This entry was posted in Hip Hop, LBGT, Media, Music, queer, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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