Frank Ocean: Queer Icon of the Decade

When Frank Ocean’s heartfelt letter surfaced on Tumblr in 2012, the mainstream media’s expectations for a black queer revolution were heavily misguided.

The act of saying “I’m gay” for any black person is packed with nuance and an inherent fear that looms within our history and cultural norms. Some of the hardest lessons and personal milestones that come with black queerness are achieved in a state of deep reflection and solace, not in the limelight for everyone to critique.

In the last seven years, Frank Ocean’s queer awakening is still a beautiful act of self-care. His journey has taught us that as we continue to navigate queerness in the real world, we need to explore the ideas around the traditional “coming out” story and ask ourselves why this is still the most coveted form of disclosure.

Frank teased about unrequited love on his debut album, Channel Orange, without giving that love a face initially. In retrospect, his approach allowed him to explore artistry without the toxic pressures of black masculinity holding him back.

The announcement of his first love with a man was an act of power and liberation in the wake of the album’s success. I remember thinking about the different ways he would proceed after this. By this time, artists like Le1f and Mykki Blanco were just beginning to cement their legacy, all while trying to fight the painfully reductive label of “gay rapper.” It’s a blessing and a curse to be recognized solely based on your identity, especially as a black person.

I worried about Frank for this reason, but then realized he was always 10 steps ahead of the world. Knowing the soft, elusive nature of Frank’s music, it was no shock to me that after his Tumblr post he retreated back to his other first love and kept his secrets in his songs. The idea of moving in silence is transcendent and deeply inspiring when you look at everything Frank Ocean has been able to accomplish on his own terms. Blonde arrived as we watched Frank become even more comfortable in his skin. He’d eased into ideas of queerness that were specific to him, his growth, and his reflections. He sings “Here’s to the gay bar you took me to” on “Good Guy” and it’s a reminder to always give nods to those mementos in life that shape your queerness.

Coming out is beautiful in whatever form you choose, but Frank Ocean’s journey as an artist helped inform a whole new generation in coming forward. Words and imagery are beautiful tools when we learn how to use them. They help propel our narratives in whatever way feels comfortable.

Black gay artists just want to be empowered. We want to be the people our elders told us for years we couldn’t. The label doesn’t add value to the struggle, the visibility doesn’t validate the journey. Through our work and our stories, we’re learning that self-love is the best medicine, and that our glow-up doesn’t need to be fodder for an inclusivity contest.

I think about the last seven years since Frank disclosed his love for men. It’s been a great time to reflect on how lucky I am to live in a world where I can learn what version of “out and proud” works for me and how much those we’ve lost would have benefited from being here now.

Black queerness is entering a new era where folks get to steer their own ships without labels, without expectations, and without fear.

It wasn’t an easy decade by any means, but Frank Ocean’s model for queer awakening has been a great tool to reference.

To quote a recent meme circulating the Interwebs, when we talk about “coming out” in the next 20 years, I’ll look at Frank Ocean’s journey and I’m gonna tell the kids THIS was the black queer revolution.

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