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.
Thank you to all who have shown love and support. My son is the most incredible human I know. Honest, true and loving.We appreciate you!
— katonya breaux riley (@katonya) July 4, 2012
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.