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Tongues Untied: On 'Coming Out,' Anderson Cooper, and Frank Ocean

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This is our first conversation as part of our Huffington Post series, "Tongues Untied: Wade Davis, II and Darnell L. Moore in Conversation." The title of our column is our way of paying tribute to the many black gay men who have given us the language and ancestral strength to freely live our lives as black gay men today. Many will notice that our title bears the name of Marlon Riggs' semi-documentary film Tongues Untied, which brought to the fore a vital conversation on racial and sexual difference in the U.S.

We recognize that the freedom we have to name ourselves and to write words, which we hope others will find transformative, exists because of the lives and legacies of those who came before us. We are thankful to extend conversations on race and sexuality started by folks like Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, Colin Robinson, and so many others, in this series, not because we think that we can match their brilliance but because we realize that so many others have been speaking truth before us and have challenged us to do the same.

What follows is our first attempt. We met up to talk about the complicated notion of "coming out," Anderson Cooper, and Frank Ocean, and why we think society needs to exit the proverbial "closet" and not LGBT folk.


Darnell: I've been thinking a lot about the demand for people to "come out," especially as it relates to celebrities who are assumed to be LGBT. Don't get me wrong, disclosure of a person's sexual identity is not a bad thing necessarily, but it seems that "coming out" is an imperative for LGBT people today. I don't think it is a fair demand, at all.

Wade: I think that it's unfortunate. As a person who recently "came out" publicly, I hate that so many people feel pressured to come out and if they don't they are criticized for trying to live their lives privately. This is a phenomenon that only gay celebrities seem to experience. It's absolutely unfair.

Darnell: There are good reasons for naming our sexual identities. You know, folk can no longer act as if LGBT people are invisible. Disclosing our sexual identities can be a political act. For example, I often disclose that I am gay if I am in a space where heterosexuality is assumed to be the norm. But, I don't feel the need to "out" myself. People seem to think that anyone who isn't "straight" has a responsibility to make that known. And, for what? The privilege of being straight, like whiteness, is such that it is imagined as the norm. Because of that, heterosexuals don't have to deal with the demand to "come out" of anything, because in the eyes of the society, they don't exist in a closet that renders them abnormal. But most folk, LGBTQ and straight, exist in the closet of heteronormativity-the false idea that all aspects of our lives are organized by way of heterosexuality.

Wade: I agree. I often think that most heterosexual people don't understand, and can't understand, the privilege they have to not have to name their sexuality unless they name it to correct some other's assumption that they are not homosexual. And, yes, I get that it's great for LGBTQ youth to see more "out" people, including celebrities, but we have to respect an individual's decision to declare his/her sexuality when and how and if they see fit. I made the choice to come out when I was ready. "Coming out" is one of the most individual decisions anyone can make, and it should always be left up to the individual and I was not going to be overwhelmed by societal pressure to disclose my sexuality.

Darnell: Wade, you weren't forced to come out though, you let people in. There's a difference. Coming out, to me, places the power in the hands of everyone else but the person disclosing. Many of us seem to come out to people who get to approve or disapprove of the ways we live and love. I often think that we come out to make others comfortable, to confirm their suspicions, or to render ourselves visible in the eyes of others who refuse to see us. Yes, there is a type of liberation that comes along with that, but all of the fear, anxiety, melancholy, and even depression that come along with the decision to come out sometimes speak to the ways that external forces shape our decisions. So, I prefer to "invite in" those who I desire to share parts of myself with. I have the power and choice to make a decision that is more about my needs and desires and less about the requirements and demands of others. What do you think about Frank Ocean's invitation to us, by the way?

Wade: Yes! I love the idea of "inviting in" because when anyone announces their sexual identity they are, in theory and practice, inviting others into their life. I lived under a cloak of secrecy for years because I didn't want anyone in my life at that level. I still had a lot of self-hatred and needed to first love myself before I could stand up and be proud of something that I had yet to come to terms with. I couldn't answer to others until I was able to answer to myself. The whole idea of having to qualify your sexuality for others is ridiculous. I think that inviting people in, as you said before, makes us visible. We can choose to the open the door to our lives and we don't have to allow others to kick them down.

Frank Ocean's letter was so brilliant and touching. It reminded me of my first love. I think we all, gay, straight, or what have you -- all experience very similar experiences when it comes to first loves and I think his letter speaks to that and helps to bind us all around a common experience, namely, love. It shows how much we all have in common. Unreciprocated love is something I imagine everyone has experienced. I hate all the negativity that is coming his way for sharing his love with us. And besides he never stated that he was "gay" or "bisexual." He just stated his love for another man.

Darnell: I wished my first love was anything like Frank's.

Wade: Why do you think he got some much negative feedback, especially from people sitting behind their computers, when reportedly over 50 percent of Americans are fine with same-sex marriage?

Darnell: Well, he is a hip-hop artist for starters. Hip-hop artist is often understood to be synonymous to straight. And he is a masculine performing black man. We have yet to free our minds to understand that black men are varied in our representations, ways of being, ways of loving, and in the ways we are sexed and have sex. The racist fantasy of the black man as a "big black buck," Mandingo, predator who is hypersexual (and, therefore, fetishized) still impacts the way we are imagined by others and ourselves. We are thought to be overly sexual and only sexual with women, and when we aren't folk cannot seem to so easily pin us down. And, any type of sex or love that disrupts the formula (man + woman or dominant + submissive or top + bottom) messes people up. We want folk to fit in neatly contained boxes. We don't want the dynamism of human diversity to exist. We want the Frank Oceans of the world to fit into our neatly organized gendered and raced boxes. When we don't fit, folk get uncomfortable and angry. Do you see any difference between his invitation and, say, Anderson Cooper's?

Wade: Yes, I think the rumors about Anderson Cooper had gotten so out of control that people were actually saying he was hurting the lives of others and adding to the fear that grips the lives of many gay youth for not coming out. There were rumors about Frank, but I don't feel Frank was under the same intense pressure like Anderson to disclose his sexuality. I'm happy both were at a place in their lives where they could disclose and feel supported, which is a privilege that many youth don't have. The privilege of disclosure should also be a part of the conversation too, by the way. There is a great privilege in being able to publicly disclose your sexuality. Do you think that there are differences between Frank's and Anderson's disclosure?

Darnell: Well, I think there will be always be factors that shape our decisions to disclose and the reactions of others. Like you've said, "coming out" and "inviting in" are privileging acts. It takes a certain type of access, in some cases, to do so. It's one thing to be rich (like Anderson) and come out. He may lose fans, but his pockets probably won't be that affected. That's not to say that losing fans is somehow less harmful than losing money, but I think about all of the young, economically challenged LGBTQ folk who have to contend with losing homes, families, and friends...who might have to contend with bullying in schools or in their neighborhoods...who may not have access to a load of supportive friends and fans...for them, coming out becomes a wholly different process. I was scared to death to "invite" my mother into my life when I was 28. I feared that I would lose my family's love and support. That turned out to not be the case, but my story is not everyone's story. There are costs. I am not in the position to determine whether or not other folk can afford such costs.

Wade: See, I think Anderson and other "privileged" gays get a bad wrap. Okay, he's rich -- next. Frank Ocean is probably going to lose fans as well and he'll still be rich or comfortable and the same goes for me. And I've actually gotten more opportunities since "inviting people in" so I think it's unfair to use Anderson's privilege against him. I think it adds to the already existing negativity about "coming out" for certain people. He did something great and empowering at the end of the day so let's celebrate it first before we hate on him for something that everyone wanted him to do.

Darnell: Well, I am not certain that Frank is rich and I am not making the argument that he isn't privileged. In many ways, he is. But, we happen to live in a society where economic status, skin color, ability/disability, body type, gender performance (whether one acts masculine or feminine), et cetera, affect how we are perceived in this world. Gay men as they are presented in the media tend to look more like Anderson, and not Frank, me, or you. So, it makes it easier for many us to make the connection between queerness, what we see on screen or in the newspaper, and the bodies we encounter in real life. And, me, you, Anderson, and Frank all share something that many folk don't, especially the young folk that I mentioned, connections to people, networks, and various forms of capital (not just money, because I don't have much) that makes our disclosure easier than that of others.

Wade: I'm not arguing that people of color, younger folk, economically challenged LGBTQ people, and others may not have it harder, but I find it upsetting that LGBTQ people don't always celebrate another LGBTQ person's liberation and personal strength. Instead, we tend to crucify each other, which is the actual thing that we fight so hard against. The never-ending cycle of judgment and hate is saddening and I wish as a society that we were quicker to build up instead of always looking to tear down. I've been blessed because I don't read stuff written about me, but I'm sure Anderson, Frank, and others have heard the negativity about them.

Darnell: I agree. I celebrate Anderson and Frank. I celebrate you, too. But I also celebrate the many whose names aren't known by virtue of celebrity status. I think the work that is left for us to do is the work of remembering that if there is a queer "community" it is diverse and includes folk whose lives and names are often muted in sensational moments of "coming out" like this. Feel me?

Wade: I do. And I get it. How do we change that? Or can we change that?

Darnell: We change it by intentionally turning our attention to those folk whose stories go untold. Maybe this is our charge for our next conversation...to name the heroes and sheroes in our lives, those who aren't celebrities. How about it?

Wade: I agree. My moment of "inviting in," thankfully has been great, but youth that are 12, 13, or 14 years of age who disclose their sexual identities are our real s(heroes). They exhibit real courage to me. I'm 34, have a job, safety, and security so in a sense it was easy, but I can only imagine how the youth we work with find the strength to do it when their lives are hanging in the balance. I want to hear those stories and then find ways to ensure their futures.