The Frank Ocean Dilemma
I am a gay man and have been for the past three years. Now, that will come as a shock to most of the people who know me because, as far as they know, I have been intimately involved with men since age 16. But the reason for their confusion will probably have less to do with me, and more to do with the socially dominant narrative surrounding the relationship between sex and sexuality in the United States. In fact, it is this same narrative that has made it socially acceptable for many people (gay and straight) to define Frank Ocean’s sexuality for him.
Ocean’s recent decision to detail an intimate same-gender relationship he had at age 19 sent shockwaves through the blogosphere. Article after article lauded the R&B singer for effectively ‘coming out’ of the closet; and perhaps rightfully so. A gifted vocalist who always makes my roommate swoon with his rendition of “Novocain,” Ocean is someone who I have come to respect and admire for his incredible talent. That admiration only deepened when he published his letter of love.
As a queer man of color, I know how difficult it can be to ‘come out’ in a society that only approves of alternative black male sexualities in terms of the (now debunked) down-low or the sassy, gay, best friend. For Ocean to share something so personal with millions of people he does not know, and will likely never meet, is noteworthy. Because, whether unintentional or not, Ocean’s anecdote has undoubtedly opened up space for people to re-energize the conversation about the place of heterosexism and misogyny in Rap, Hip-Hop and R&B music. But I would be doing Ocean a huge disservice if I did not speak my discomfort with the ‘hype’ surrounding his alleged “coming out.”
Contrary to what the Washington Post and other mainstream news media outlets would have you believe, not once in Ocean’s letter did he actually reveal his sexual orientation. Believe me, I looked. All I could find was a rather beautiful discussion of his first love and the summer they spent together. What’s happened instead is the imposition of a sexual identity onto a seemingly unwilling participant (for other examples, think back to the controversy surrounding Raven and Queen Latifah this past year). The current public discourse surrounding Ocean’s sexuality is one that reflects sexual essentialism at its worse.
Sexual essentialism rears its ugly head whenever we assume a person’s sexual orientation is determined, either in whole or in part, by his or her sexual behavior. It is sexual essentialism that says only gay men have sex with other men, and only lesbian women have sex with other women. The one exception to this rule is bisexuals, who even then, are thought only to have sex with men and woman in equal proportion. Under this model of sexual identity, heterosexual individuals are prohibited from ever engaging in same-gender relationships much in the way homosexual individuals are prohibited from ever engaging in different-gender relationships.
But it seems to me that embracing such a narrow definition of sexual identity causes more harm than good. Not only does sexual essentialism force people into boxes that don’t necessarily fit who they are, it prevents them from experiencing various forms of love, pleasure and intimacy. It reduces sexual identity to nothing more than what happens inside the bedroom (the car, the bathhouse, etc.) and erases the existence of people who identify outside of the gay-straight binary. This includes, of course, my brothers and sisters who identify as asexual, pansexual, and MSM (to name a few). Simply put, sexual essentialism constricts a person’s right to sexual self-determination.
I’m uncomfortable assuming Frank Ocean’s sexual identity because, quite frankly, there is probably more to his sexual orientation than what’s written in a single blog post. Just as my racial identity is rooted in more than the color of my skin, so too is my sexual identity rooted in more than a sexual encounter I had age 19 or will have at age 32. And even if Frank Ocean were to ‘come out’ tomorrow as gay or bisexual, I don’t think it would justify the initial leap from sexual behavior to sexual identity.
At the end of the day, I am the author of my own experience. So if I don’t want someone speaking for me, why would in the world would I ever do it for someone else? Thus, it seems we have a dilemma on our hands…