When CNN’s Anderson Cooper announced last Monday that he was gay, it may have been the least sensational coming-out in recent history. Cooper handled it with absolute grace, articulately addressing the reasons he has remained silent about his sexuality for so long—and weighing his desire for privacy against the deficit of LGBT role models for America’s homosexual youth.
“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,” Cooper wrote in an e-mail to blogger Andrew Sullivan, which he allowed Sullivan to publish on his website, The Daily Beast. “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.”
He’s right. Nothing has a greater potential to open people’s minds like finding out that someone they love or respect is gay. It changes the conversation and shifts one’s perspective in a very personal way.
This wasn’t a Jackie Robinson moment. Cooper is not the first news anchor out of the closet—he wasn’t even the first at his own network. CNN’s Don Lemon is openly gay. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has been openly gay for years; in fact, she was the first openly-gay American to win a prestigious Rhodes scholarship.
If there was a Jackie Robinson moment last week, it happened in the hip-hop community. Last Tuesday, R&B singer Frank Ocean—whose star is rising quickly—shared a very personal essay on his Tumblr account about his first love: a 19-year-old man. “I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide.” Ocean tells the story of a complicated relationship, of girls he thought he’d loved, of his struggle to master his emotions.
The world of hip-hop and R&B is notoriously homophobic. Gay slurs are commonplace in hip-hop lyrics, and in the vernacular of its most ardent fans. In fact, Frank Ocean is a member of the alternative hip-hop group Odd Future, which has itself been criticized for its homophobic lyrics. As an up-and-comer with the wind in his sails, Ocean’s announcement will make the road ahead an uphill battle.
Ocean’s letter ambiguously suggests that he may, in fact, be bisexual—a triviality that won’t buy him much leniency from hip-hop’s hardcore homophobes. However, the news was met with a chorus of support from some of hip-hop’s heaviest hitters. Former Def Jam boss Russell Simmons called Ocean’s coming out, “a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?” Simmons went on to say, “I am profoundly moved by the courage and honesty of Frank Ocean. Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear.”
In the Twittersphere, supportive messages were overshadowed by hateful remarks and death threats geared at Ocean—which may not do much to appease the fears of said young people. In reality, we won’t be able to assess the ramifications of Ocean’s revelation for some time. “It’s going to be a kind of litmus test,” said Nelson George, an author and filmmaker, speaking to The New York Times. “You can’t really know the real impact of this for six months to a year.”
The fact is that America is still sharply divided on homosexuality. And in this atmosphere of hatred and fear, Cooper and Ocean showed us all what true courage is all about.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 07/12/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.