Essays and legal writing of Heron Greenesmith

Monday, November 26, 2012

frank ocean, being bi, and other continuums

1:23 PM Posted by Heron Greenesmith , , , , No comments
from a service I gave at my unitarian universalist congregation. 


Last week, R&B singer Frank Ocean rippled the music industry and the LGBT community by posting a letter on his blog, sharing that his first love was a man. He published the letter in anticipation of the debut of his first full-length album; days later, he performed his single Bad Religion on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, singing lyrics about which we all now knew the background story.

Frank Ocean is the first major R&B singer to explicitly talk about being in a same-sex relationship. But I don't want to talk about the gendered politics of the R&B and hip-hop world. I'm not equipped to, nor would it benefit to add my voice to the thousands of voices in that arena after his announcement last week.  No, today I want to talk about what I talk about best: how Ocean's announcement made me feel. And hopefully, by talking about my feelings, I can explore a few things with you today about continuums of gender and sexuality.

I begin with a brief, but hopefully not dry historical framing. In the middle of the last century, Alfred Kinsey began releasing the findings of his extensive interviews with thousands of men and women who shared with him the details of their every sexual and romantic counter, every dream and fantasy. So surprising were the revelations uncovered by these interviews that Kinsey had to create a new platform from which to talk about human sexuality: the Kinsey scale. Refined and or rejected by hundreds of scholars, the Kinsey scale placed human sexuality on a seven-point continuum: from 0 to 6, 0 begin exclusively heterosexual, 6 being exclusively homosexual, and 3 being "equally heterosexual and homosexual, or bisexual."

Revelatory yet flawed, the Kinsey scale has become a ubiquitous measure of sexuality in the American LGBT movement. Further expansion and revision of the scale have produced the Storm Sexuality Axis, which plotted sexuality along two axes, and the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, which allowed for the dimension of time and compares sexual experience with emotional attraction and self identification.  

Aside from the famous Kinsey scale, Alfred Kinsey’s other most important contribution to the modern LGBT movement (and human sexuality in general) was the revelation that so many people were bisexual! According to Kinsey’s research, approximately half of the people he interviewed were exclusively heterosexual, another 3% were exclusively homosexual, meaning that almost half of his subjects could be identified as bisexual. His scale did not differentiate between sexual and emotional attraction versus experience, but the results were nonetheless shocking.  

The most modern study of bisexual invisibility, out of the LGBT Center in San Francisco, found that approximately three times as many women identified as bisexual than lesbian, and about half as many men identified as bisexual as gay. When the question was expanded to attraction as opposed to identification or experience, a 2005 study found that 20% of all respondents expressed having been attracted to people of more than one gender.

I have a personal stake in these findings, identifying as bisexual myself (and I suspect that many self-identified bisexuals would feel the same way) but clearly, the literature shows that WE ARE EVERYWHERE!

But back to my feelings. When Frank Ocean published his letter, I had two simultaneously deep and sharp stabs of emotion. The first was gratitude and I will return to my gratitude in a moment. The second emotion was fear: a dark and clouded fear that made me wince with sympathy. For though I do not know what Frank Ocean was thinking as he wrote his letter or the words to the songs that would necessitate the letter, I do know what I would have felt, for I have been there. The closet (for that is what we have chosen to call the state in which we are all assumed to be heterosexual, or zeroes on the Kinsey scale) is a stifling, but safe place to reside. Another term for the closet is "covering," erasing that part of you that makes you different from the expected norm, your sexuality, your gender, your race. Removing your cover, stepping out of the metaphorical closet - you are deliberately unveiling that which makes you different.

We are all different from the expected norm in some way, and some of us in many ways. We are all in the closet, we all "cover" something. We make the daily calculus whether the closet, the cover, is either safer or more stifling.  The math depends on our environment, our circumstances, our privilege, our community, our inner strength, our will-power, our resources.

Here is the other dimension to the sympathetic fear I felt when I read Frank Ocean's letter: when your distinction, your difference, what you cover, is invisible to the naked eye, you will be coming out of the closet, uncovering your differences, your entire life. As long as there are those who assume same-ness, there will come moments when we must assert difference, take off the cover.  And each uncovering requires the same calculus, the same strength, the same fear. I am sure that Frank Ocean’s letter was not the first time he told this story, nor will it be the last. And each telling, each uncovering, will be accompanied by fear, trust, relief, expectation.

And so I return to my gratitude for Frank Ocean, for taking off his cover for us in this moment. For trusting us to see one facet of his life. I am also grateful to Frank Ocean for what he didn’t say. He didn’t say “I am gay.” Instead, he told us a story about his life. He uncovered a piece of himself that was previously hidden and asked us to trust him, asked us to love this fuller version of himself. Asked us not to judge, not to label, but to love.

I wanted to talk about bisexuality today because I think we need to understand that we have a flawed view of human sexuality, one that can be made more whole by understanding sexuality along a continuum and understanding that many more of us are standing along the line than are standing on the endpoints. So too for gender identity and expression: there is no one standing in the end zones, no perfect specimens of “man” or “woman.” We are all on the field, expressing our gender identity as best we can, wearing jeans and baking cupcakes, reading love stories and collecting flowers, betting on races and having great table manners.
What Frank Ocean’s story really teaches us is to love. If we agree that many of us are “covering” something, our sexuality, our desires, our true gender expression, then we must always be open to the uncovering, the revealing, the revelation of someone’s true self.  In order to fully affirm the worth and dignity of every person, we must treasure the uncovering as a symbol of trust and return it with the love it deserves.

For indeed, we all experience our own uncovering. For many, it may be leaving the traditional closet. To friends, to family, to ones that we love, to the entire R&B community, to the entire internet.

For others, uncovering may start with finding a community like Bell Street, a community in which you don’t need to cover at all, or maybe just cover less than normal.

When I was 20 I came out to my two closest friends. I felt safe and loved and vulnerable and in a moment of spontanaeity, I lifted up my cover and let them see a truer, deeper me, a more whole me. In his letter, Frank Ocean talks of sitting in a car, telling this man he loved him, and feeling as if he were at the edge of a cliff.  I too sat in a car, those years ago. I too was at the edge of a cliff.

Frank Ocean's words: I sat there and told my friend how I felt. I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for them, knew I could never take them back for myself. He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best. But he wouldn't admit the same. I felt like I'd only imagine reciprocity for years. Now imagine being thrown off a cliff.  No, I wasn't on a cliff. I was still in my car telling myself it was gonna be fine and to take deep breaths. I took the deep breaths and carried on.  
UPDATE 5.16 - I've been meaning to add this article to the site. The giants whose shoulders Frank Ocean stands on: http://www.sfbg.com/noise/2013/02/13/beyond-frank-ocean-la-pe%C3%B1a-takes-deeper-look-hip-hop-inclusivity

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