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Coming Out in Hip-Hop: Frank Ocean's Radical Step

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Seven years ago, in an interview on MTV, Kanye West described the discrimination against gay people within hip-hop culture. "I wanna tell my friends, 'Yo, stop it,'" he said. Now, Frank Ocean's courageous, heartfelt coming out is a love-fest shout-out of "yo, stop it!" to the often homophobic world of hip-hop. It's a striking complement to the much-discussed coming out of Anderson Cooper. From the urban streets to the rarified world of CNN, July's coming-out stories are pushing aside more vestiges of homophobia.

In his Tumblr posting, Frank Ocean offered the world a striking story of unrequited love for the man with whom he fell in love. While Anderson Cooper offered nuanced and carefully parsed words about privacy, Ocean's gutsiness in revealing his heart and the surprise of discovering that his first love was a man is more than just transparent. For any of us who remember a first love, it offers a common meeting ground beyond the rhetoric of LGBT rights.

Ocean writes that no matter who or where you are, "we're a lot alike." He adds, "Human beings spinning on blackness." Every person in the world wants the happiness that is discovered in our own well-being; each of us wishes to love and be loved. This is the human story that Ocean chooses to tell. It is an invitation to honor our humanness beyond labels, causes, and issues.

The riskiness of Frank Ocean's coming out is directly related to his industry. Never mind the fact that he is poised for mega-star status; hip-hop has been marred by offensive and violently homophobic language for years. Last year Brandon "Lil B" McCartney received death threats for planning to release an album expressing support for the LGBT community. The reaction resulted in changing the name of the album from I'm Gay to I'm Gay (I'm Happy). That was not a happy capitulation in the history of hip-hop.

The unspoken truth revealed by Terrance Dean in his memoir, Hiding in Hip Hop, is that there has always been an active gay subculture in the hip-hop world. This week, with his courageous self-revelation, Frank Ocean invited participants in that subculture to name their own truth and set an example.

The immediate reaction to his coming out, from the hip-hop industry and culture at large, has been positive. If that continues to be the case, then that -- and not necessarily Ocean's coming out -- is the big story. We're living in a time of seismic shifts in public perceptions of LGBT people and marriage equality. It would be logical to see those same changing attitudes reflected in the world of hip-hop. Will the artists and the industry match Frank Ocean's eloquent, courageous love song to the human family? Will Odd Future, the group that Ocean belongs to, reexamine its homophobic language?

Frank Ocean's coming-out love poem celebrates our interconnectedness and need for one another. He lavishly praises the support of friends and family. The man whose unrequited love he sought "said kind things" and "did his best," while Ocean's own mother "raised [him] strong." He writes to his mother, "I know I'm only brave because you were first."

"We're a lot alike," writes Ocean, adding that he wants to "create worlds that were rosier than [his]." He also leads the charge when he says, "I don't have any secrets I need kept anymore." When you speak out with authenticity, you diminish the power of those who seek to hate as much as you invite others to meet you as a fellow human being. Because straight or gay, love is love.