A tale of two coming-out stories

“Anderson Cooper caught everyone by surprise when he revealed he was gay on July 2 in an email to Andrew Sullivan that was shared with the public.” The Huffington Post, July 13, 2012

Caught everyone by surprise? Were people really surprised by this disclosure? Frankly, Joan Rivers’ comment seemed to be much more on target:

I am thrilled that Anderson Cooper finally came out” (emphasis added). 

Some of you may remember my blog post titled, “Setting off my gay-dar,” a piece that was inspired by Kristy McNichol’s public coming-out (which, for many people, was also not particularly surprising). In that post, I named a lengthy list of celebrities who had set the public’s gay-dar off for years before they actually came out. Anderson Cooper fits that profile – he was out to people in his personal life, but he very carefully chose when to come out publicly, probably because, as quoted by one insider, he didn’t want to “commit career suicide” by openly identifying as gay.

I don’t want to downplay the strength and courage it took for Cooper to come out of the closet. Coming out and choosing to live openly and authentically, while accepting the consequences of that decision, is a milestone moment for every LGBTQ person. What helps Cooper is that others in the news/media industry have begun to pave the way for him – Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Thomas Roberts, all anchors at MSNBC; ABC News’ Dan Kloeffler; and CNN’s Don Lemon, to name a few. If I had a crystal ball, I’d predict that career suicide is not in the future of Anderson Cooper – in fact, I bet his coming out will actually elevate his status, like it has for Ellen DeGeneres.

But let’s switch to another coming out story – a story which has created a different kind of celebrity buzz. On July 4, Frank Ocean, an African-American hip-hop and R&B artist, posted a lengthy statement on his Tumblr site that revealed his love for another man, beginning at age 19. Ocean went on to say this:

“I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite [sic]. I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore.

I feel like a free man.”

A free man. What a beautiful statement to make on Independence Day.

The African-American hip-hop world, however, is a very different landscape from the cable news environment – and, in my opinion, the stakes are higher for Frank Ocean. While there is scant psychological literature exploring homophobia within hip-hop culture, many psychologists, including Beverly Greene at St. John’s University, have documented extensively the challenges of homophobia in the Black community, particularly among African-American males. If we look beyond psychology and explore other disciplines, such as anthropology, linguistics, communications, sociology, and cultural studies, we find quite a bit of scholarship on homophobia in hip-hop culture. For example, in his article “No Homo,” published in the Journal of Homosexuality, linguist Joshua Brown of Penn State University explores the ways in which that phrase entered the hip-hop nomenclature, and how “no homo” effectively prevents any type of sexual or gender transgressions, particularly any violations of masculinity. Joel Penney, professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, explores in a recent article published in Popular Music and Culture how the use of the phrase “We don’t wear tight clothes,” originally coined by rap artist  Thug Slaughter Force, fueled a “gay panic” in the hip-hop community. In his article, Penney talks about how phrases like this are used to police the boundaries of black masculinity – and that they connect with a long history of homophobia within African-American culture.

So what does all of this mean for Frank Ocean? Artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z have publicly expressed support for Ocean. Ocean’s new album is currently ranked #1 on iTunes. And, in a post titled, “The Courage of Frank Ocean Just Changed the Game,” Russell Simmons wrote this (which I have included in its entirety):

Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really  are.  How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are  we?

I am profoundly moved by the courage and honesty of Frank Ocean.  Your  decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in  fear. These types of secrets should not matter anymore, but we know they do, and  because of that I decided to write this short statement of support for one of  the greatest new artists we have. 

His gifts are undeniable.  His talent, enormous.  His bravery,  incredible.  His actions this morning will uplift our consciousness and  allow us to become better people.  Every single one of us is born with  peace and tranquility in our heart.  Frank just found his.

Frank, we thank you.  We support you.  We love you. 

And yet, just a few days ago, Target announced its decision not to stock Ocean’s new album on the shelves of its stores. Of course, it’s not clear as to whether this is just a business decision or an ugly example of covert homophobia (and that’s not a completely unfair assumption, given Target’s checkered history with the LGBTQ community). However, it’s these kinds of reactions that, compounded over time, could in fact lead to career suicide for Ocean.

Whether he realizes it or not, Frank Ocean is a traiblazer and a pioneer, giving young African-American LGBTQs license to live openly and honestly. But he has also taken a significant risk, and time will tell regarding whether Ocean’s career will skyrocket, crash and burn, or slowly smolder. The hip-hop community stands at the turning point, and we’ll have to wait and see what unfolds from here.


Filed under coming out, covert homophobia, gay-dar, homophobia, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, media, psychological research, racism, Uncategorized

2 responses to “A tale of two coming-out stories

  1. Ocean, Bev Greene, Russell Simmons, and Cooper all in the same posting? Be still my heart! Gayle, as usual, this is a great contribution to public discourse. Thanks.

    I think another facet that will come forward in coming months is Ocean’s tepid embrace of a gay or bi identity. This issue — the seeming incompatibility of one identity with another — will keep challenging the identities of sexual minorities. We are at once Muslim, women, mothers, lesbians, African American, and middle class. When the cards are stacked against one of more of these (i.e. lesbian or Muslim) and the others, it feels like something cannot be fully embraced.

    As scientists we must be cautious. On one hand it is important to continue our exploration of difficult topics like homophobia in the African American community, especially among young black men. But, we must also acknowledge that this brand of homophobia, while different, is not worse than that of religious communities, white conservatives, or suburbanites. In each case, anti-gay discrimination debilitates us all, agents of discrimination and its targets as well.

    Again, Gayle, thanks for your thoughtful work.

  2. Gary, you are a faithful commenter! I love it.

    I found it interesting, too, that Ocean didn’t specifically name himself as “gay” or “bi.” If he chooses to do that, the ensuing cultural conversation will be interesting. It’ll also be very interesting if he DOESN’T choose a label, and lets his words on Tumblr stand as is.

    With respect to your other point, you’re right – homophobia is homophobia, no matter who’s on the receiving end of it. But I do think that the experience of homophobia can be vastly different depending on where we’re situated in society. If we have race or class privilege (like Anderson Cooper), that can make for a very different experience compared to someone who is a member of multiple minority groups. Again, an issue I plan to explore further in my next book.

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