People who ‘deviate’ from supposed sexual norms are, of course, amongst the most bullied individuals in society. Deviation from the mean (average) has somehow given mainstream society licence to be even meaner (cruel). It’s not enough that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are made to feel abnormal: they have to be repeatedly struck down by words and fists, too. Growing up would be particularly difficult for individuals uncomfortable in their own skins. It’s no wonder that many such teenagers commit suicide or learn to become invisible by living a lie.
The It Gets Better Project was designed to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, and reaches out to young people by showing them that they’re not alone. It highlights the importance of community and leading by example. The It Gets Better Project publicly demonstrates the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years.
Things aren’t going to get too much better, however, if LGBT people continue to feel displaced and/or insular. Mainstream media also requires role models that will help normalise what is generally perceived to be ‘abnormal’. While the question of sexual orientation or gender identity is a relatively private matter, the closet remains a strong presence in public life.
It’s worth noting, then, that two people recently (and independently) came out in the same way: in an open letter to the community. The heartfelt declarations of Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean couldn’t be more different and will hopefully pave the way for greater acceptance and understanding.
Perhaps what is most interesting, however, is that the least prominent coming ‘out’ is arguably the more culturally significant. Cooper is, of course, an already established television personality—and heir to the Vanderbilt fortune—while Ocean is a poor boy from New Orleans and rising star within the music industry. This is not to diminish the significance of Cooper’s moral fortitude. Indeed, the renowned CNN journalist even provides a context in which to understand the importance of becoming increasingly ‘visible’.
“I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I have given some the mistaken impression that I am trying to hide something—something that makes me uncomfortable, ashamed or even afraid. This is distressing because it is simply not true.
I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible. There continue to be far too many incidences of bullying of young people, as well as discrimination and violence against people of all ages, based on their sexual orientation, and I believe there is value in making clear where I stand.
I love, and I am loved.
In my opinion, the ability to love another person is one of God’s greatest gifts, and I thank God every day for enabling me to give and share love with the people in my life.” (source: Email from Anderson Cooperabout the subject to Andrew Sullivan, who posted it on his Daily Beast blog.)
Cooper’s ‘coming out’ also shared the character and value of his own ‘brand’ – one that promotes personal integrity and candour. By remaining ‘invisible’, the CNN anchor threatened to tarnish his own reputation as a truth teller. Since his private life was already an open secret, it’s arguable that the letter was more damage control and/or potential ratings boost.
It’s a different kettle of fish, however, for Ocean. The 24-year-old runs the risk of damaging a burgeoning career and alienating his own peers in the hypermasculine world of urban music, where singers cultivate images as lady-killers. Ocean’s main claim to fame, of course, is as a break-out member of the hip hop collective, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, and for the critically acclaimed free mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. He has since been anointed by Jay Z and Kanye West on Watch the Throne and his recently released debut album Channel Orange was highly anticipated.
Although Kanye West and Jay Z have famously supported gay rights over the years, Odd Future members remain infamous for their homophobia and misogyny. As one LGBT spokesperson complained “Lyrics such as those played by Odd Future increase the societal discourse against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, a discourse that encourages stigmatisation… bullying and violence” (RJ Cubarrubia, “Odd Future Dumped from Festival Due to Homophobic Lyrics”, 4th November 2011).
Ocean’s open letter, then, is particularly remarkable for the way it breaks ranks. Unlike another band member who appears to protest too much, Ocean is fearless in his approach. He risked life and limb by eloquently describing the “first love” that “changed my life” and continues to “overwhelm” him. He talks of a common humanity – “all wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to” – and of being caught unaware by a “love” there was “no escaping” or “negotiating with”. Ocean remembers the many summers spent together and how time would “glide” once seeing the other 19-year-old boy’s “smile” as they lay together.
The only problem was: his lover also had a girlfriend and preferred to live a lie. Nonetheless, Ocean had “no choice” but to be overcome by his feelings and surrender to their natural rhythms. He continues to feel “grateful” for the heartbreaking experience and has vowed to “channel overwhelming emotions” through his music.
Despite media pronouncements, however, Ocean is neither a rapper nor gay. He’s an R&B singer who has come out as bi-sexual. While being in touch with one’s sensitive side might come with the territory, the question remains: is the world ready for an R&B singer that can potentially speak to (or for) everyone equally?
To be perfectly frank, it doesn’t come much better than this. Ocean keeps divisive labels at arm’s length and embraces a range of musical styles. His primary concern is plumbing the depths of the human heart and finding a language in which to channel its ebb and flows. The talented singer songwriter endeavours to give voice to something that is becoming increasingly audible: a shared humanity, despite sexual orientation and/or identity. Also important: his visibility moves the ‘tide of history towards greater inclusiveness and equality’. Ocean’s musical versatility helps to humanise (and represent) complex feelings and fluid identities.
By having it both ways, Ocean overcomes sexual boundaries and establishes connections between people seemingly separated by continents and archipelagos. Trailblazing poet June Jordan arguably said it best when she observed “the keenly positive, politicizing significance of bisexual affirmation… is to insist upon the equal validity of all of the components of social/sexual complexity.” (GMax.co.za, 7 July 2004) If people are willing to meet him half way, Ocean can help bridge the cultural divide.
We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves though. Ocean will remain a divisive figure amongst many people. As the Frank Ocean impersonator on Twitter makes all too clear: it didn’t take long for the cyber bullies to come out in full force and assert his value within the sexual hierarchy. If any of these homophobic responses to one of his love songs is any indication, Ocean has clearly burnt his bridges in some quarters: some people can’t even hear the music because they refuse to see past his sexuality. Ocean certainly has his work cut out for him when even the lesbian member of Odd Future presents as a misogynist guy and thinks calling someone a faggot is hiliarious.
Louie CK and Melissa Leo in the infamous Louie scene.
A remarkable scene recently occurred on television – it culminated in sexual assault as it simultaneously assailed viewer sensibilities. Perhaps what is most remarkable about it is the way it subverted assumptions about sexual relations and identity. If the roles had been reversed, for example, many people would have been outraged and claimed that the series had hit a sickening new low. Instead, the overwhelming response was laughter amidst suggestions that the show had scaled new heights.
The comical scene itself, though, is not played for broad laughs: it also has dramatic and moral weight. It’s primarily about sexual tension and remains tense until the antagonist gets release through violence. The scene is morally complicated by the possibility that the victim was ‘asking for it’ when refusing to reciprocate a sexual act. The line of consent is blurred by the protocol of agreeing to a bet that the “faggot” will be “strapping on the feedbag” regardless of personal objections.
We are, of course, talking about the rape (or not) of Louie CK by Melissa Leo, an actress who dominates both the scene and the actor with her fearless performance, in the FX comedy series, Louie. While that might look funny in print and on screen, there is no escaping the fact that viewers were witnessing a scene that raised many serious questions. Indeed, Louie CK uploaded it to his own Youtube channel because he was aware that “a lot of people have been discussing this scene and I thought it would be helpful to have it on here as a reference”.
If you haven’t seen it yet (see below), it might prove to be anticlimactic. It’s worth noting, though, that like Louie’s character, viewers did not originally see it coming. The scene is arguably less hard hitting if you’re bracing yourself for it and don’t know the original context (it was a blind date set up by mutual friends, assuming that’s even relevant). Although the self-contained scene speaks for itself, it nonetheless says volumes by pointing to other ‘components of social/sexual complexity’. A relatively straightforward and humorous sequence ideally becomes increasingly complex and questionable.
Some of these questions include: is there a difference between being bullied to have sex and being raped? Does it matter if the bully cum rapist is a woman and the victim is a man? What if the victim had just been sexually pleasured and refused to return the favour on moral grounds? Was the woman morally justified in her outrage and entitled to insist on being pleasured in turn? Was the man being unreasonable when he politely declined and explained his reasons? Was she being reasonable when she mocked his manhood and accused him of being ‘gay’?
Who is the real (or bigger) bully here: the man who received pleasure without wanting to give anything in return, or the woman who forcibly took pleasure after selflessly giving of her own accord? If Louie went to the police to file a complaint, would it more appropriate for them to take his allegation seriously or to simply laugh at him for being such a “pussy”? And, of course, who is being the real ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in this situation? Specifically, are there gender differences in the perception of rape, when the incident is (morally) ambiguous and grounded in cultural norms surrounding dating and courtship behaviours? I’m not going to presume to answer any of these questions. As can be seen, they’re more a litmus test on how you perceive sexual identities and relations between the sexes.
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// Notes from the Road
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