Here’s a piece of vital information for your everyday life: You don’t have to like Frank Ocean. You really, really don’t. If you pop in his latest release, spend a few minutes listening to it, and then say “man, this is not my jam,” that’s your prerogative. Will people on Twitter be angry that you’re not in love with the latest BIG RECORD THAT’S GOING TO CHANGE EVERYTHING? Sure, but if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s not your cup of tea. All good, friend.
Well, except, wait, there’s one problem with not liking the new Frank Ocean joint. If you don’t like it because the singer’s not explicitly heterosexual, then yeah, you’re being homophobic. There’s really no question about that. Because at that point you’re not rejecting Ocean for his music — a valid choice that’s based on your subjective judgment of artistic merit — but reducing his artistic output to his sexuality. And you know what? That’s not okay.
This isn’t a theoretical discussion, either. If you’ve been following social media reactions to the new album (is it #blond or #blonde?), then you know that there have been a lot of “I’m not a homophobe” posts that immediately make it clear that the person writing them has, at the very least, a homophobic bent they’ve completely shut off from exploring because it doesn’t jibe with their perception of themselves. Here’s a selection:
One of today’s biggest misconceptions — in an age where many people feel that the LGBT community has already achieved full equality — is that being homophobic means being actively against the LGBT community. But just because you’re not out there throwing things at people marching in Pride parades doesn’t mean you’re exempt from being labeled a homophobe. Because being homophobic isn’t just about hate and violence, it’s also about discriminating against people just because they’re gay.
Sure, the word isn’t as descriptive as it could be — which is why many people argue against being homophobic because they don’t “fear” members of the LGBT community — but it encompasses both the hatred we so often see on the news as well as heterosexism, a more benign but pervasive idea that gay, bi, trans, and non-binary people are somehow less than just because of their sexual orientation. And if you’re not listening to Ocean’s music exclusively because it may feature a track about his relationship with a man and that makes you feel “uncomfy,” you’re absolutely buying into the idea that art which doesn’t automatically cater to your sexual orientation is somehow not worth being listened to.
Think about it this way: Would you be considered on the wrong side of history if you replaced the word gay with another protected class? How angry would you be if someone said “I’m not going to listen to this album because Frank Ocean is black?” What if you replaced black with Jewish or asian or female? If you wouldn’t ever make that statement, then why make one about someone’s sexual orientation?
And what makes it so necessary to announce that you won’t be listening to the album because there may be mention of Ocean expressing his love for another dude? What award will you win, besides the knowledge that the people who support you are also so fragile in their sexuality that they believe that “gay” can somehow be caught by listening to a record? Trust me, if I haven’t caught “straight” from the majority of artists I listen to, you’ll be fine, too. And considering how long LGBT artists have been left out of the mainstream — being relegated to niche markets whether they mention their sexuality or not — it’s about time we all put on our big-kid pants and recognize that hey, gays and lesbians being allowed a seat at the table isn’t taking anything away from those that aren’t, only adding more voices that others can identify with.
Here’s another thing: Casual homophobia still hurts, and sometimes it cuts even deeper than the virulently vitriolic strain that’s at least honest in its bald hatred. I don’t remember every time someone has called me a faggot on the street — and it’s happened — but I’ll never forget the time one of my high school classmates seriously asked if buying a brownie from the book club’s bake sale — the club prominently featured two gay members — would turn him gay as well. We all laughed about it then, but with the casually hateful response to Ocean’s new album, it’s clear that this kind of thought process isn’t limited to 16-year-olds who haven’t yet seen the world. It’s a type of closed-mindedness that transcends age and permeates so completely that many people don’t even stop to think why it’s wrong.
That’s something that Ocean has actually addressed. In a Tumblr post he wrote in June, the artist acknowledged why it’s so important that more diverse voices are heard:
I was six years old when I heard my dad call our transgender waitress a faggot as he dragged me out a neighborhood diner saying we wouldn’t be served because she was dirty. That was the last afternoon I saw my father and the first time I heard that word, I think, although it wouldn’t shock me if it wasn’t. Many hate us and wish we didn’t exist. Many are annoyed by our wanting to be married like everyone else or use the correct restroom like everyone else. Many don’t see anything wrong with passing down the same old values that send thousands of kids into suicidal depression each year. So we say pride and we express love for who and what we are. Because who else will in earnest? I daydream on the idea that maybe all this barbarism and all these transgressions against ourselves is an equal and opposite reaction to something better happening in this world, some great swelling wave of openness and wakefulness out here. Reality by comparison looks grey, as in neither black nor white but also bleak. We are all God’s children, I heard. I left my siblings out of it and spoke with my maker directly and I think he sounds a lot like myself. If I being myself were more awesome at being detached from my own story in a way I being myself never could be.
But wait, you might be thinking, how does not feeling comfortable with Ocean’s new album automatically turn me into a minor bigot? As some people have pointed out, they wouldn’t watch a gay porno, either, but that’s just a matter of preference, not a way to demean the gay community. It’s an interesting thought, but it conveniently glosses over the fact that the two mediums are incredibly different and serve different purposes. Pornography is explicit in its sexuality, generally serving no other objective than to cater to your physical satisfaction. Ocean’s work — and the work of other LGBT artists — however, isn’t about that. Yes, he may be singing about his love for a man, but the fact that listeners can equate that to pornography is an example of how reductionist our views on homosexuality can be. And that’s not just this instance, even a cursory search shows that anytime members of the LGBT community are open about their orientation the conversation is immediately turned to sex, even when sex wasn’t the topic at hand.
Art, when it’s done well, is meant to challenge your beliefs and expand your horizons. If we only consumed entertainment that completely aligned with our points of view, there would be precious little learning going on. And if your main argument for not listening to the album is that you don’t agree with or are made uncomfortable by Ocean’s sexuality, then where do we draw the line between artist and output?
As The Debrief points out, Ocean’s only crime is “loving another man.” How do we reconcile not listening to Ocean’s work due to his honesty about consensual romantic relationships while continually supporting the work of R. Kelly, who’s been dogged by allegations of sex crimes for over a decade? Why, if someone’s personal life can’t be divorced from their music, is it still okay to jam out to Chris Brown despite his well-documented domestic abuse of Rihanna? These are questions we won’t have answers to until we move away from proudly proclaiming that “gay stuff” makes us uncomfortable, moving away from pride about “not being PC,” and examining exactly what’s so dangerous about homosexuality that makes us act out in this way. And if nothing else, you must give Ocean credit for coming out about his sexuality in a genre where expressing who you are — something that most people would say they encourage — could end up costing your career.
Yes, Ocean is beloved by multitudes for how unapologetic he is and how relatable his lyrics are, but had he not come out as a man who’s had a romantic love for another man — something that’s considered more unforgivable than hot, unlike whatever Katy Perry’s doing — he might be beloved by even more. In statements made in 2014, T-Pain called out the rap community for not working with Ocean due to the stigma of working with a man whose sexuality does not fit into an appropriate box, despite the fact that Ocean could have elevated the track. “I know n***** that will not do a song with Frank Ocean just because he gay,” T-Pain said, “but they need him on the f*cking song and that’s so terrible to me, man… What I do ain’t going to affect nothing that you got going on.” And despite the fact that even artists who have been openly homophobic in the past — including both Killer Mike and Tyler The Creator — have embraced Ocean for his talent and honesty, it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go before the toxic masculinity that allows hateful comments like the ones seen above be met with even a modicum of celebration are eradicated.
Being gay isn’t a fad. Discussing homosexuality isn’t pushing an agenda down anyone’s throat. All of us could stand to be a little discomfited in minor ways in pursuit of a greater understanding, and listening to a talented performer who happens to not share your sexual orientation is a small way to connect with the part of yourself that’s not okay with the full spectrum of sexual orientation and consider why. Listening to a track about a man loving another man isn’t going to make you gay. So why should it be so gross? And why is it any grosser than songs about murder, sexual assault, or the degradation of women? What mental gymnastics must be done to forgive one but not the other?
You don’t have to like Frank Ocean. You never have to listen to him if you don’t want to. And you know what? That’s fine. But if you’re going to lay that refusal on sexual orientation alone, there’s no amount of “I’m not homophobic” posturing that will make it true.