There are some people, gay and straight, who argue that a person’s sexuality should be a private matter. There are also some who would argue that it doesn’t matter how a celebrity happens to “come out”, as long as it happens. I’m not one of them.
While having sympathy with public figures faced with the real commercial risks and personal pressures of revealing their sexuality – as Frank Ocean certainly faced, discussed in part 1 of this blog – there’s a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it. One is to come out voluntarily and the other is to be forced into it.
Handled well, a famous person coming out of his own free will can help gay or bisexual teenagers- who commit suicide at vastly disproportionate rates to their heterosexual brothers and sisters – hope that they can live a life without shame and fear. That’s what Dan Savage’s inspired and inspiring “It Gets Better” campaign in the states has tried to demonstrate. But if a celebrity tries to conceal their sexuality until the dread day they are finally outed, then their actions suggest the opposite, that not being heterosexual is indeed an awful thing, a dirty secret.
That’s not to say that outing celebrities is a noble activity at all. The late Stephen Gately was famously blackmailed into revealing that he was gay by despicable tabloid journalists, and made a rather graceful, brave job of it given the strained circumstances. Far more embarrassing – and sadly well known- was the case of George Michael.
Despite the fact that his sexuality had been an open secret for years – his closet was definitely of the glass variety – he stubbornly refused to speak on the subject until his humiliating arrest for “lewd public behaviour”. While Michael managed to milk (sorry) some humour out of the incident in his “Outside” video, and those same despicable journalists struck gold with the “Zip Me Up Before You Go Go” headline, the circumstances resoundingly re-inforced the message that gayness was something shameful that should only be confessed when you were forced to.
That’s what makes Ocean’s coming out so bold, beautiful and inspiring: he voluntarily admitted his love for a man at a time when his whole career hung in the balance. Ocean’s masculine image and demeanour would have allowed him to “pass” for straight, as some people still say. To the best of my knowledge – speaking to friends who might know – there were no gay rumours swirling around Ocean before he went public (the same cannot be said of 50 Cent, the recently reformed homophobe, amusingly enough).
We know of no blackmailers forcing Ocean to take this bold step into the unknown, no journalists threatening to expose him. He did it because he wanted to, because – in his own beautiful words – “my hope is that the babies born these days will inherit less of the bullshit than we did.” Or, as he told The Guardian today, “I wished at 13 there was somebody I looked up to who would have said something like that, who would have been transparent in that way.”
When you consider stars like Jodie Foster and Ricky Martin who waited decades to come out, missing the moment when they were at the peak of their powers and fame and could have had the most impact, Ocean’s courage seems more even astonishing and inspiring. I always thought that growing up gay in the North East of England in the early nineties was tough, but when I talk to black gay guys, I realise my adolescence was like The Waltons in comparison.
My head spins to think of what Ocean’s honesty will mean to young kids who find themselves drawn to people of the same sex, particularly young black kids, Like Zachary Quinto, another talented, up and coming star who came out last year, his example will shine. Given those huge suicide rates for gay teens, it is surely no exaggeration to say that Ocean and Quinto will have saved countless lives with their courage, and made many more much more bearable.
Jonathan at the Black Youth Project blog writes of “the power that FrankOcean now has on young boys and girls who might be struggling to figure out who they are in a society that already oppresses them.”
Nor will it just be gay or bi kids who will benefit by Ocean’s honesty. Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the best bloggers in the world, has written brilliantly on his own past anti-gay attitudes, and on how moving beyond them liberated him and his thinking. “I can remember coming out of Baltimore and viewing every interaction with someone who was gay with a kind of smug derision. It’s the closest I’ve come to a kind of deep, unstated pride in ignorance,” he has written. On Ocean he now writes, with one part astonishment and two parts admiration: “in my childhood, this was an unimaginable story.”
One more extraordinary thing to note about Frank Ocean’s declaration of independence (and that term seems appropriate given he made it on July 4th) – we don’t even know for certain if Ocean has ever kissed a man, let alone had sex or been in a relationship with one. We only know he was once in love with one. His tumblr note doesn’t actually use the word gay or bisexual once. It is a gentle letter, as gentle as his music, not overtly politicised, not aggressive nor defensive. It simply talks of love, and with an eloquence, beauty and vulnerability that is rare from any man. This is also revolutionary – and will be the subject of the final part of this blog, due tomorrow.