I hadn’t planned on saying anything about Frank Ocean (except for congratulations on a fantastic new album and for that other thing), but I’ve come here today to ask Ann Powers and other intrepid music journalists with English Literature degrees a huge favor: Can we please not do things like close-read Frank Ocean’s coming out letter? Because stop it and you’re wrong.
Excerpt #1: “In his note, instead of embracing an identity, Ocean shared a set of memories and explored complex feelings, just as he does in his songs. Unlike the standard coming out gesture — newsman Anderson Cooper’s public email to his friend Andrew Sullivan, ‘The fact is, I’m gay’ — Ocean’s presented sexuality as something that arises within particular circumstances, defined by shifting desire and individual encounters rather than solidifying as an identity. In the age-old debate about whether sexuality emerges as something we are or through something we want or do, Ocean carefully rested on the side of feeling and deed.”
I realize that terms like “shifting desire” and “emerging sexuality” sound awesome in queer theory textbooks, but in the reality of identity formation and coming out, it’s just not so much about the desire as it is about the acceptance. In other words, as a teenager, I was perfectly happy to enjoy the pleasure of watching Brian Benben take his shirt off on Dream On, but to call it that — to acknowledge my desire for Benben and fully embrace the fact that this was, in fact, gay desire — is something that often takes years to work through. Almost paradoxically, one can technically “come out of the closet” and still feel this conflict. So while Powers seems to think Frank Ocean is not “embracing an identity,” it’s more that Frank Ocean is not embracing an identity she is familiar with. Ask a gay person and they’ll tell you: The walk outside of the closet is, for most of us, a long and tenuous one. It’s not as clearcut as the cover of People magazine.
It should also be pointed out that this “debate about whether sexuality emerges as something we are or through something we want or do” is a false one: The relationship between who we are and what we want or do is a symbiotic one, and in the coming out process, there is no taking sides. I can honestly say I’ve known I was gay since I was a young child — since before I had a word for it — but I didn’t really come out until 1998, when I was 24 years old. How come? Because I needed to experience my desire before I could truly identify with it. The fact is, we don’t know where Frank Ocean lies in this continuum, nor is it any of our business. He is sharing himself with us in the way that he feels comfortable to do so, and seriously, we should just be happy and supportive of that.
Yeah, okay, fuck your implication that a focus on “feeling and deed” rather than identity and labels just means a person isn’t all the way through the process, though. I can honestly say I’ve known I was not straight since I was a young child — since before I had a word for it — but I didn’t really come out until 1998, when I was 14 years old, and then again 2000, when I was 17 years old. How come? Because almost as soon as I learned the word I learned how inadequate it was. There was no one word for the way I thought about gender, the way I experienced it as a culture, a common language. There was no one word for the things, familiar and foreign, that turned me on. There was no one word that could describe the people I wanted, the ways that I wanted them. There was no one word to tell those stories.
I gave you two dates for my coming out because there were two times that I claimed a word, or let a word claim me.
The first, sitting on the floor in gym class, the day after my best friend told me, sitting on the floor in gym class, she was bisexual. “You know that thing you told me yesterday?” I asked, in my stupid boys’ basketball shorts. “Me too.” I had been figuring out for the past few years that not everyone felt the way I felt, figuring out that I had to be straight or not straight, but the word that I knew back then was lesbian, and I knew I wasn’t that. Bisexual was a revelation: you didn’t have to be one or the other, you could be some sort of both. And that was the way we talked about it, as being both. We rarely said we were bisexual after that first time. It was a girl day or it was a boy day, depending on the prevailing winds of our desires, we were straight right now or we were gay right now, changing moment to moment from one identity to another. I went to a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting, sat between a gay girl and a straight girl. “She’s gay, she’s straight, and I’m the alliance,” I cracked, when asked what I was. And, privately, as I pulled at the knot of my feelings, I discovered that there were more than those two strands to my sexuality — it was a braid of almost infinite threads, the way I was raised, what I learned about gender, the sound of her voice when it was just the two of us, sneaking off to the other side of the school just to see the silhouette of her in a classroom doorway out of the corner of my eye, how I thought she was just so good, and on and on, the tangle of all the details that added up to the way I maybe loved someone.
The second, two years and a few months later, getting into my mom’s car with my best friend. “I have to tell her, at this point,” I had said, breathless, annoyed, as we waited on the sidewalk outside the school. “I’m going to tell her.” I didn’t want to. I didn’t believe in coming out, to begin with, and I resented that I would have to take a label to have a conversation about it at all. The plan had been to just live my life, and let people figure it out as they figured it out. And it worked with friends, with classmates, with teachers — the people on the front lines of your life, there for the conversations about crushes, in the same room while you flirted or fought. It didn’t work as well with my parents — you don’t talk to them about who or why you want to fuck, you know? With my parents, just living my life made all these moments pile up, moments where I was aware that they didn’t know, and it might have made sense for me to say something, but I didn’t say anything because I believed so much that I shouldn’t have to. With my parents, just living my life began to feel the exact same as keeping a secret. So that afternoon I sucked it up, got in the car, and said, “I’m bi.” I hated it, I still hate it, because it isn’t true.
Yes, there was that time — I know exactly what you’re talking about — that time when I didn’t want to say. For me I stayed in that place not because I couldn’t accept it but because it was glorious, when it was mine, unspoiled, untouched by the words other people wanted to use for it, just want and love and quiet and sometimes I would get so lost in my thoughts I would find myself, head tipped to one side, smiling. Sometimes I still don’t tell people because that’s beautiful, having it all to yourself like that. Almost holy, right? This thing that’s just between you and the universe, orange sunsets slanting into your bedroom window on a summer night.
You talk about enjoying your desire but not being ready to acknowledge that it was gay desire, you say you needed to experience your desire before you could truly identify with it — for you, it was a word. But for me, experiencing my desire meant realizing that I didn’t identify with a word, that I couldn’t. My identity is stories, words patched together to help people understand how I am. It doesn’t mean I’m somewhere behind you on the path to acceptance, it means I’m on a whole other fucking road.