Can People Let Frank Ocean Define His Own Sexuality?
By Cleo Manago, CEO and founder of the Black Men’s Xchange (BMX)
African-American hip-hop artist Frank Ocean recently shared in a post on his Tumblr page that he had fallen in love with a man before. At the speed of sound, all available media space has been consumed with ill-informed presumptions about Mr. Ocean’s identity and conception of his sexuality.
In less than 24 hours everyone, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identified individuals, had defined his sexuality for him even though he has said nothing at all publicly on this issue to date.
What we’ve witnessed is a profound chauvinism on the part of gay-identified individuals who cannot conceive of any identity outside of the limiting gay/straight binary. And in the process, they continue to obscure the rarely acknowledged reality that many Black men who love men are not comfortable with the LGBT or gay identity.
Frank Ocean wrote that he fell in love with a man. It was a beautiful story about love lost, about the unique challenges of being a black man who loves another black man in a society that does not value the lives of black men. Mr. Ocean never articulates it in those terms, but as a man who has worked for more than three decades with black men who love men, I recognized the signs.
And, importantly, he never used the words “gay” or “bisexual.” He did however use the word “love.” Five times, in fact.
That’s the beautiful honesty obscured here, and obscured every time the predominantly White gay movement and other gay-identified individuals label Black homosexuals and bisexuals without their consent. As quiet as it is kept, our society has more complexity than the predominately White-controlled media allows space to understand. People, especially African Americans, need to understand that many African Americans do not consider LGBT or gay to be inclusive nor culturally affirming. And this is not always because they are in denial of their sexuality or that they wish they were heterosexual, contrary to what you might hear in the mainstream media.
The reality is that there are many African American men that prefer being in spaces that affirm their Blackness, rather than associating with an often racist “LGBT” community. Africans Americans are not the architects of the LGBT movement. They are, if anything, just used in advertisements to create the impression of inclusion that is not always there.
Recently, Queen Latifah headlined the 29th Annual Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride Festival. Following her appearance, like with Mr. Ocean, an avalanche of LGBT-identity associations was made about Latifah. She soon corrected everyone explaining that she was not “coming out” as a “lesbian” but was just being supportive.
Latifah and Ocean are the products of deeply African-American art forms and cultures. Latifah is a highly respected figure from hip-hop’s golden age and Frank Ocean is a member of the hip-hop collective, Odd Future. They are not highly assimilated individuals, culturally speaking. Both are still quite “Black” in how they “represent.” It is entirely possible that, as a result, they are unwilling to adopt the LGBT identity because it holds no cultural capital for them. And there is nothing wrong with their decision to do so. In fact, it’s a sign of radical self-determination that is all too rare in our so-called “post-racial” America.
Often Black men identify as gay because it’s the only identity that they think is available to them. They believe they have no other choice; that there is only gay, bi, and “straight.” And that can seem better than being an abomination in the eyes of a so-called Christian God and demonized by people in a church.
But there have been important same-gender-loving (SGL) Black men who have articulated an identity that is their own, that affirms their Blackness. Great, African American writer and freedom fighter James Baldwin, known as an openly homosexual, never aligned himself with the gay movement. Such a move is not meant to be adversarial, though it is often misconstrued as such because there has been much invested in the [basicallyWhite] “gay” movement.
The point is, we still have too much to learn or acknowledge about African-American homosexual and bisexual people. Our stories have been ignored or told by other people in a way that erases our cultural heritage and specificity. Homosexuals and bisexual people are no more monolithic culturally than heterosexuals are. That richness needs to be acknowledged, respected and “held” so all people, African American people especially, can have unfettered opportunity to love and embrace themselves in culturally affirming ways.
I hope Mr. Ocean too realizes that he can do this and not be seduced by the media avalanche that keeps telling us who and what he is based on someone else’s agenda.
Cleo Manago is founder and CEO of the Black Men’s Xchange (BMX) (http://www.bmxnational.org/), the nation’s oldest and largest community-based movement devoted to promoting healthy self-concept and behavior among same gender loving (SGL), gay-identifying and bisexual African-descended males.