‘Coming Out’ As An Abstract Art

On Frank Ocean, Anderson Cooper, And Other Heros

PITNB’s NEW popCULTURE CLUB: theoretically putting the “culture” back in “pop culture,” one post at a time… This week Trent and Shannon talk about the art of coming out in pop culture. Is there a way it should– or should not– be done, and what do misunderstand most about this important moment?

One of my favorite things about the movie Amélie is the way the narrator of the film carefully lists off all of the things that are specific to each character in the movie.

 

The point is that, once you have the small details, you know a lot (maybe everything) about the individual. Because everything that we do—the food we like, the noises we like, the love we make—everything matters.

***

When I first heard the rumor that Frank Ocean might have made reference to a homosexual relationship on his album I rolled my eyes because I knew something like that would never happen. Ever. Why? Because, while he may sing, Frank Ocean is very much a part of the hip-hop community and in this community you’re not allowed to be gay. Period. If you’re a woman, you’re allowed to be bisexual (in fact, it’s preferable), but really, you better be a hetero girl who’s also a freak. And down for whatever— mainly threesomes. Those are your options. Pick one.

A few days after I heard the rumor, Frank composed a letter on his tumblr that was so beautifully written, it sounded like a song. Precisely but poetically, he told a story that many of us can relate to; the first love/first heartbreak story heard ‘round many worlds. And that was when I fell in love with Frank Ocean. Well that, and when I heard Pyramids.

I read the letter quickly; just like everyone else I wanted to get to the juice of it. I wanted to read the part where he officially came out and said that he had been with a man! But now, after reading many of the articles and many of the comments, there’s something else about the letter that interests me. And I wonder if we could ever look at it as “more than” just a coming out, or if it could be understood as a coming out letter, among many other things.

What I love most about Frank’s letter is the part where he talks about writing albums in between all of the heartbreak and confusion he was suffering:

BY NOW I’VE WRITTEN TWO ALBUMS, THIS BEING THE SECOND. I WROTE TO KEEP MYSELF BUSY AND SANE. I WANTED TO CREATE WORLDS THAT WERE ROSIER THAN MINE. I TRIED TO CHANNEL OVERWHELMING EMOTIONS. I’M SURPRISED AT HOW FAR ALL OF IT HAS TAKEN ME.

In a way, he does not separate his personal experiences from his career or his art. He does not claim that one has nothing to do with the other and he does not make the argument that what he does in his personal life is not reflected in his public life as an artist. Instead, he embraces it all wholeheartedly and weaves the two narratives together. The relationship, the lack of reciprocity, the inability to change how he felt, the love and the pain all worked its way into his work, the work that many of us call genius.

I want to say something that may be problematic for some of you. In my opinion, Frank Ocean is not a musician who happens to be gay or bisexual (as I understood the letter, he is a gay man who used to have girlfriends). I would say the same about Anderson Cooper, who is not (in my opinion!) a journalist who just happens to be gay. I find it problematic to completely separate the two (the individual from his/her sexual orientation) and I went on a bit of a Facebook rant about it earlier this week in reaction to comments I came across. People who said things like, “Oh Frank Ocean’s gay, I’ll never listen to him again”— those people didn’t bother me. The comments that were most troubling to me were the ones that were like, “He’s gay, that’s cool. I’ll still listen to his music.” It was as if they were saying, “His music is sooooo good it makes you forget that he’s even gay!” That mentality is, to me, more dangerous than anything else. It’s akin to the mentality that encouraged people to call really famous blacks “a credit to their race.” It implies that a certain amount of talent (or money) is required for an otherwise unacceptable person to be deemed acceptable. And that mentality is, for me, unacceptable.

But I still haven’t said the thing I’m scared to say, lol! I want to say that, while I understand that it’s important for everyone— gay, straight, trans, bi, undefined, or unsure— to say that they are not who they sleep with… I have to respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with that idea. We are who we sleep with (I know a lot of you are cringing right now, lol); we just aren’t only that! We are our sexuality, just like we are where we went to school, and we are where we grew up, and we are our hair, and we are our body shapes, we are our chosen professions, we are the music we write, and the music we listen to, and the authors we love; and we are our parents and our children— we are those things. We just aren’t those things individually and exclusively; we are those things (or reflections of those things) collectively.

I am a heterosexual woman (ish) but I’m not merely a heterosexual (ish) woman. However, my being that defines MANY of my views on things, especially the coming out process. Until I worked with Trent I was one of those [heterosexual-ish] people who couldn’t stand closeted gay celebs (or at least those I thought were closeted), because I felt like they were lying or doing a disservice to… to who? I suppose I expected them to do one of the very things I claim not to believe in; I wanted a single individual to carry an entire group of people on his/her back. Without even really knowing what ‘coming out’ meant I wanted that!

And when I asked Trent recently to tell me what he thought was the biggest misconception about the coming out process from heterosexuals he described me, dead-on:

I think the biggest misconception is that it’s easy to come out. Even those who consider coming out to be difficult still do not understand the impact that it could have on a person’s life. The hardest part is admitting the truth to one’s self … but even after a person comes out, it doesn’t necessarily get easier. I know there is a lot of hope in the “It Gets Better” campaign and, by and large, it’s a campaign of support. But in all honestly, it doesn’t always get better. Families, friends, co-workers, strangers … so many people have huge impacts on people’s lives. A hateful homophobe among any of those people could be devastating to a person who just came out. A young person may experience an outpouring of support from friends, classmates, teachers, the community after they come out … and their very own parents or even one parent could turn on and abandon them. It’s one thing to merely come out. It’s another thing altogether to deal with the ramifications from others for doing so.

After reading this from Trent I had even more appreciation for Frank Ocean’s mother who tweeted this message in support of her son.

And the fact that she is the final person Frank thanks in his letter tells me that she has probably been a huge support to him all along.

I also asked Trent about misconceptions from the gay community:

I think the biggest misconception from SOME (not all) in the gay community is that there is a duty to others to come out. Staying silent about one’s sexuality hurts other gays who might gain strength from another’s coming out story. That is true, yes, other gays gain strength and support from coming out stories but no one should ever be pressured or, even more horribly, outed just because someone else things they should come out. Not everyone in the gay community thinks this way, I surely do not. But I have friends who are militant in their belief that gay celebrities who remain in the closet are despicable for keeping their private lives private. I cannot stress enough how opposed to this belief I am.

But I was especially interested in hearing Trent’s thoughts on the many ways people come out, and the reactions they get (as a result of their choice in how to deliver the news) from fans and the media:

Invariably, yes, reactions will differ from instance to instance. Overall, the people who are going to support anyone coming out (ie. a gay friendly person) will be happy no matter how the individual chooses to come out. Conversely and sadly, a homophobic person will still be unhappy no matter how a person comes out. But, I think the coming out stories that are heartfelt and personal are the ones that get the most support. I’m sure magazine cover stories do very well but I, personally, respond better when someone just comes out and says, I’m gay, without having to be prompted.

We as bloggers, as readers, and as consumers of all things celebrity and pop culture are looking for the juice. We want the facts. Is he gay or not?! Lol. We’re not interested in the narrative, but I wanted to take a moment to express some interest in the coming out process as a narrative, as an abstract art of sorts, which is what I saw in Frank Ocean’s letter.

On the Anderson Cooper coming out post PITNBr Kiki recommended an article that I devoured called The Art Of Coming Out (no, I didn’t bite off their title– I had mine first, lol) and, in looking at the history of celebrity coming outs they mentioned Jodie Foster’s thank you speech to her assumed (now ex) girlfriend, Cydney. Because she never said the words “lover” or “partner” or “girlfriend” or “I’m gay,” people wondered if it “counted.” And, in a way, I think it’s sad and strange that Coming Out has to be defined under such strict terms. For all that, one could argue that Frank Ocean didn’t exactly come out. He never said he was gay and he never said he engaged in intercourse with the man he loved. But we know what he means, even in his somewhat abstract language.

I say all of these things as a hetero girl who has never had to come out and who never will. The closest I’ve come was telling my aunt that I’d maybe been with a few girls and she told me that was fine because my Mom had ‘experimented’ in college too. That one got filed under ‘things my Mom chose never to tell me while she was here,’ lol. But hetero girl that I am, I suggest we consider and accept the art of coming out as the abstract declaration that it really might be. And I call it abstract not to sensationalize it (and not to imply that we stare at it like a painting in a museum) but to suggest that the process is specific to the individual; it is their work of art (in a manner of speaking) and the fact that there are a million ways to come out proves that it is not a simple process or single fact to be waived away once we get the bottom line.

People are beginning to say that coming out is not a big deal, and Trent has said that this means progress in a lot of ways. But to me it also implies a sort of nonchalance about something important. I can’t say that I know exactly what that important thing is. I don’t think I have it. But I do think that the fact that Frank Ocean is gay matters; I don’t think it’s a non-issue that shouldn’t affect how I feel about him. Everything about him affects how I feel about him! Every lyric, every picture, his jawline, his race, his art of coming out— all that he chooses to do and all that he has no control over is important in my— in our—understanding of him. It matters that he’s gay and it matters in a good way and in abstract ways I will never understand. I know that we need understanding on this issue but we also need misunderstanding– or the willingness to admit to misunderstanding. I know, I’m getting abstract! But what I mean is, those things that are “different” between the genders, between people of certain sexual preferences, and between races cannot always be fully understood. I embrace the fact that when someone comes out, I have no context to understand that moment! I’m different, and I won’t ever have that experience. So in this specific experience, I don’t understand Frank Ocean or Anderson Cooper or Cynthia Nixon or Wanda Sykes or Will Smith (wait, what?!) or Jim Parsons or Jane Lynch or Trent Vanegas… and I embrace that mis-understanding because somehow, in some abstract way, it’s what further connects me to them all.

And for that, I thank them.

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  1. Lydia

    Thank you for this post Shannon! I have felt the same way as you in that everything that I am defines me, not just one piece.I can’t agree with you more on the “His music is so good, I forget he’s gay.” Ridiculous. I found Frank Ocean’s letter beautiful. I had heard about him, but hadn’t really paid much attention to his music. I will now!

    Also, thank you Trent for sharing your opinions on Coming Out!

  2. Lynne

    Trent, thank you for bringing Shannon on your PITNB team. She brings something so amazing to this blog. :)

    Shannon, I completely understand your abstractness lol. I took two classes in college that helped changed my perceptive on the meaning of people (Intercultural Communication and Communication and the Sexes). I don’t know if you’ve heard of the word intersectionality, but it speaks closely to what your articulating.
    Don’t tell someone, “I don’t care that you’re gay” or “I don’t ever notice the fact you’re black”, etc. When you say things like that you are not acknowledging a part of their identity, in a way you’re denying a part of it. It’s something that should be embraced. (Not that it needs to be acknowledged every single time, but having an awareness and sensitivity.) That fact that someone like Frank Ocean is a gay R&B/Hip-Hop artist is exciting because he can now sing songs that speak true to (a part of) his identity.
    With that all said, I don’t feel celebrities who don’t publicly acknowledge that they’re gay are doing a disservice to the gay community or whatever. I think it was Frank Sinatra who once said something in the lines of that he didn’t owe the public anything except his best performance. Anderson Cooper, Frank Ocean and others really don’t owe the public any explanations about their private life…

    I have a lot to say about this subject but I’ll stop here lol and I’ll end with this: (Question #5: Do you think there will always be a “closet”?)
    http://www.logotv.com/video/episode-34-season-3-1-girl-5-gays/1688224/playlist.jhtml#vid=793786

    • Lynne, thank you for the comment (and the compliment via Trent)! And yes, intersectionality is a theory that got drilled into my mind, body and soul, lol. And it shows, right? Now I have no idea what this show is that you’ve intro’d me to but I’m LMAO right now.

      :)

    • Lynne, WHHHAAAAT is this show?!

      And that’s a great question– I like that they make the “closet” more about closeted aspects of identity, which can be applied to many things. In which case, yes, we’ll always have closets.

    • Lynne

      Shannon! Did ya love the show? Did ya?! lol It’s called “1 Girl, 5 Gays”, I discovered it about a year and half ago channel surfing one night and was in love from then on. I’ve learned a lot about gay culture and um, sex from that show! LOL. I hope you watched the other episodes too! :)

    • Lynne, I’m still in recovery after that first episode, but I’m bookmarking it and I can’t wait to spend an entire day watching the others. HILARIOUS! That part where she asks how far they’d go with each athlete? OMG. And then the “draw your most awk sex position.” Too much! Thank you, Lynne. Thank you.

    • Lulu

      I loved that show too!! So going to watch more episodes :)

    • Lulu, I feel like I’ve missed out on something major in life with this show! I’m catching up, though.

  3. Ama

    Someones sexuality doesnt matter to me-not because I don’t care, but because it doesn’t change who they are to me.

    My younger brother is transgendered. He come out as being as lesbian first, which didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in my family. Since he always preferred females in a fanatic way. A few years later he came out as being transgendered- this was harder for my parents to accept. But they finally have after a year, it was easy for me to accept because it doesn’t change who he is to me-still a pain in the arse younger sibling : P

    Great article- I enjoyed reading it!

  4. Ama

    XD Romantic way not fanatic. Sorry for any other errors, typed that on my phone

  5. Andre

    “Everything about him affects how I feel about him!”

    I agree that a person should be valued for all their qualities, without selectively ignoring some. But with that in mind, wtf is with all-caps in his letter? Seems like kind of an important statement, deserving of at the least the occasional ‘shift’ key.

    Anyway, good post; thanks!

    • Andre, lol. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and I wish I had an answer about the caps, but I don’t! It was almost as if he wanted emphasis on every single letter, rather than a few in particular, but who can say for sure? Thank you for commenting!

  6. Nick

    That was a really good read! Thank you!

  7. Emily

    Shannon,
    You make me excited to read this blog again! Seriously, girl, I cannot give you enough props. I’ve always enjoyed Trent and this space he’s created…and with that you’re taking it to a whole ‘nother level. I’m so impressed by how smart, thoughtful, witty, and ambitious you are. Thank you–it’s truly a breath of fresh air.

    • Emily, THANK YOU! I’m so glad that you got a chance to come back and read this one! It was such a fun (and important) post for me to write (for myself, really) and I love getting to share this stuff with you all. The props are so very much appreciated, as is the use of one of my fave phrases: ‘whole ‘nother level’ LMAO!

      I love that you mention the ‘space’ Trent has created. I honestly would not write much of the stuff that I write if it weren’t for the intellectual, cultural, and emotional energy of this site, which has been here since Trent started it. You all contribute so much to that energy and I’m just glad to be a part of it. Thanks again :)

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