Two famous men came out this week, but little about their moments was similar. Coming out remains a political gesture — an act of resistance in a world that still tries to attach shame to homosexuality. When gay bashing remains prevalent and politicians and voters work to constrain gay civil rights, one’s sexual orientation cannot be just someone’s “private business.” Knowing people are gay is a path to acceptance. Studies show that people are more likely to be at peace with homosexuality even if they only know homosexuals through parasocial relationships — the sort of one-sided relationships we have with celebrities. It becomes harder to hate gay people when you find them in your living room all the time via Modern Family or Will & Grace. So coming out remains important because the visibility and normality of prominent gay Americans makes life easier for less famous gay Americans, some of whom commit suicide because they fear the life ahead of them. “There is value in standing up and being counted,” as Anderson Cooper said in his coming-out statement on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Cooper is one of cable TV’s best and most prominent broadcasters and also someone who has been rumored to be gay for a long time, but that widespread opinion is irrelevant because of the message that not standing up tacitly sends. As Cooper wrote in his statement, “I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something.” His silence could have suggested that he thought there’s some reason to be quiet about being gay. His speaking out makes it clear he knows there isn’t.
But for me and many others, the popular young singer Frank Ocean’s coming out this week on his Tumblr was even more powerful, courageous, seismic — and totally unexpected. Ocean sang prominently on Beyoncé’s album 4 and Jay-Z and Kanye’s album Watch the Throne, and now has a large segment of the music world waiting breathlessly for his debut solo album, Channel Orange. But his coming out is no marketing ploy or attempt to grab attention; it’s a spiritual and personal release. “I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore,” he wrote. “I feel like a free man.”
Ocean is an effortless heartthrob who sings in a hip-hop idiom. Hip-hop culture is notoriously homophobic, and asking the community to be nuanced on the issue of sexuality is like asking a middle-schooler to discuss metaphysics. Hip-hop is a parade of alpha men who use the dominance of women to enhance their manhood and seem to know nothing of the concept of anima, the feminized part of masculinity. Ocean’s crew, Odd Future, a collective of rappers in which he’s the only singer, is an oft brilliant bunch of boundary-shoving, gross-out-loving teenagers who are thoughtlessly homophobic one moment and the next, defiantly supportive of their DJ, Syd tha Kid, the lone woman in the crew and an out lesbian. Their leader and mastermind, Tyler, the Creator, was supportive of Ocean in his own way, tweeting, “My Big Brother Finally F—ing Did That. Proud of That [black man] Cause I Know That S— Is Difficult or Whatever. Anyway. Im a Toilet.”
One would guess that Ocean’s career is more at risk than Cooper’s, though most of the initial reaction suggests that both will emerge unscathed and perhaps more respected by the many people who understand their courage. But more interesting to me was their different conceptions of homosexuality unveiled in their discussions of it. Where Cooper talks about it as an almost clinical fact about himself — “I’m gay, always have been, always will be” — Ocean takes a much more nuanced view by describing a pivotal relationship, never attaching a label to himself. He writes of his first love affair, four years ago, in language that could easily fit a heterosexual relationship, normalizing gay love, revealing it as functioning just the same as straight love. Except that it often must remain in the shadows. But with each coming out, our society is changed a little. Gayness is made a little more acceptable. The shame is rejected a little more. The day when coming out is no longer politically necessary grows a little closer.