Last summer I watched as all of my friends were in shock that the man they knew as Frank Ocean, the R&B/hip-hop crooner who sang songs that made women squeal revealed an intimate secret. Mr. Ocean told the world in a blog that he was once in love with a man. And that was about it. No coming out of the closet to the world as many assumed, and no official declaration of any new sexual orientation.
Mr. Ocean's newfound buzz landed him a hit Billboard debut album (2012's Channel Orange) and several Grammy nominations this year. The convenience of such publicity landing just a week before his album dropping and soon after CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's official coming out almost seemed strategic. Let's face it, after Frank Ocean revealed to the world that he was once in love with a man (note: he never called himself gay or bisexual) it seemed that his Twitter followers shot to a million and he became MTV famous. No more mixtape hype and behind the crew photos. Frank Ocean became idolized as this great breakthrough for black men in the music industry and our generation.
The only problem is, he wasn't and probably never will be. Flash forward to three months later. Frank Ocean releases his music video "Pyramids" and it is back to the same regurgitated overtly heterosexual usage of deformed and abstract female strippers and the lust and degradation that always cheaply comes with the package. And yet this is the same guy who the media considered "fearless," and "brave." And while many in the black community were celebrating the idea of having an openly gay artist in the hip-hop industry, what we really had was a man who profited off of the hype and misinterpretation.
Shocking, I give you that. Heroic, I think not. I think it is time for blacks to wake up and respect and recognize the real members of color in the LGBT community that have paved the way for us with their time and due diligence rather than just with music videos and phony intellectual quotes.
Bayard Rustin. Does his name ring a bell? He was a pioneer for civil rights and gay rights during a time in our history when fighting for both would have been fatal. Rustin was arrested numerous times for being openly gay. And when not working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was out being the chief organizer of the famous March on Washington. Rustin died in 1987, and while we celebrate the legacy of Malcolm X and Dr. King, I would argue that we don't respect Rustin's work as much due to the fact that he was gay.
And in 1987, another black gay leader passed away as well, the legendary James Baldwin. The man who was truly bold and fearless and wrote countless books that not only explored what it meant to be black in America (1953's Go Tell It On the Mountain was a classic) but what it meant to be a gay male as well (1956's Giovanni's Room was way before its time). Yet despite having direct relationships with dames and duchesses of black literature such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Nina Simone, he also had political relationships with Malcolm X and spoke openly about rights for all.
Not that anyone should expect him to, but I don't recall seeing Mr. Ocean advocating for gay rights or really pushing to change the way the industry for black men is very overtly heterosexual at all. Instead, he has continued to accept being the token in an industry that continues to perpetuate the stereotype for what societal black masculinity is. And the saddest thing is, while we are celebrating the just the survival of an R&B artist admitting he has had a desire for another man, what we are avoiding is the actual discussion of if we are ready for an actual openly gay black artist in our mainstream world.
To be quite honest, I don't think we are. Frank Ocean was not a breakthrough, but a reminder of what we are willing to tolerate and not accept. In all honesty, Mr. Ocean strategically played his cards right. He played off of the vulnerability that was initially his music to fuel a very open demeanor. Based on the tone he had set previously, we really were not that surprised. However, I am willing to bet that if it were to be a 50 Cent type persona that would emerge as openly gay... that is when all hell would literally break lose.
And that is the problem. We are going backwards in our society and not forward in our thinking. Where is our modern day Bayard Rustin? When will we ever see someone follow the footsteps of James Baldwin? When will we see such fierce and courageous sacrifice and real fearlessness? It's a damn shame in our community when we consider just coming out a victory rather than a launch.
In many ways, perhaps we should stop looking at celebrities as examples of progress in the black community on this issue but actually our co-workers, our peers, our children, our friends. Our LGBT brothers and sisters who have been out for years and everyone tried to ignore it. The boss at your job who is afraid to tell everyone who is his partner but everyone already knows. If you feel so bold and willing to support the confession of a celebrity that you most likely have never met, why not embrace someone you see every day. For they are the ones that have to deal with the everyday ridicule, the homophobic remarks, the passive-aggressive judgments. If it means anything, they deserve our respect and acknowledgement, not the media's faulty call on what is "groundbreaking."
It is 2013. We are long past the excuses and the denial, Black America. Whether you are ready to accept it or not, there are LGBT members in our community that are working beside you each and every day. And no, they are not all like Frank Ocean who have isolated experiences and will still adorn female strippers, but actually those who are openly gay and have lives that reflect such. It's high time we stop discriminating and being ignorant to our own. Bayard Rustin once said that "to be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true." We are at a point where we know the truth and to avoid it now would be to enslave ourselves in ignorance. I thought we came a long way from that.
Follow Ernest Owens on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MrErnestOwens