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How Frank Ocean's Same-Sex Love Revelation Liberates Us All

The popular singer's admission that he first fell in love with a man counters America's long history of homophobia and oppression

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Then there were the cases of Boy George and George Michael, British musical superstars, who had to deal with a range of issues (our issues, not theirs) tied to their sexual orientations. Boy George flaunted his in style and dress with bravado, and truly was a pioneer in doing so (unlike David Bowie, who pretended to be gay, or androgynous, but really wasn’t, or so he says). But Boy George was marginalized by the homophobic masses and the effects of superstardom (his rambling personal relationships coupled with substance abuse) took their toll. He is quite lucky to have a life and a career as a bonafide and in-demand DJ in the 21st Century. Indeed, in my work as an activist, writer and just as a human being who cares, I have been struck by the number of conversations I’ve had with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered sisters and brothers who’ve battled depression, thoughts of suicide, alienation from families and friends and alcohol and substance abuse, as well as abusive relationships, because of the emotional hardships tied to who they are.

In George Michael’s case, not only did he cross over to America with his British rhythmic pop, I remember in the late 1980s how beloved he had become with African American audiences, the latest remix of blue-eyed crooning to touch the souls of Black folks. But a series of very embarrassing incidents that revealed George Michael’s bisexuality sabotaged his career severely, and unless you are a diehard George Michael fan today, most do not know who he is in the United States. Really heartbreaking, given how gifted Michael is as a vocalist.

Which is why Frank Ocean’s revelation in that open letter is so darn profound, so darn courageous. In the world of Black music since the 1980s, whether you are a rapper, an R&B singer, or a reggae singer, there has been zero tolerance for discussing homosexuality except in often vicious, disrespectful and destructive ways. In fact, the explosion of hip-hop into the mainstream in that decade was at least partially a response to what many of us in urban America perceived as the far too “soft” images of the biggest R&B singers of the day. The hair filled with jheri curls and other chemicals that gave the appearance of women’s or White folks’ hair. The voices that danced effortlessly between that of a man and a woman. The make-up and eyeliner (even Dr. Dre has been lambasted for this, due to his membership in his first group, World Class Wreckin Cru, and their physical appearance in that vein). The positioning of manhood in a way that some felt was too sensitive, too artsy, and, well, too much like a woman (as the sexist thinking goes).

Thus from KRS-One or Chuck D of Public Enemy to Cypress Hill or Eminem, to practically every well-known or respected hip-hop artist you can name of the past two decades, words dissin’ gay people have flown out of our collective hip-hop mouths. Of course I know, as a product of the ghetto and Black America myself, that outsiders do not understand the language game of our America, even if they think they do. There have certainly been occasions, in our very insulated communities, where I have heard hurtful terms like “faggot” and “homo” used to describe another male, not as an attack on their sexuality, but to suggest, in our limited worldview, that these males needed to be men by the standards set by us, whatever that is supposed to mean. So not only could you not be openly gay or bisexual, you also could not cry, vent, or speak about love in any form that is affirming and joyful, nor say what may be hurting or traumatizing you. And if we males accidentally touch each other on the basketball court, we are quick to say “No homo!” in defense of that accidental action, to draw a line between our basketball aggression and our sexual orientation.

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