Between Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace and Frank Ocean coming out, it feels like this is a major moment not just in music culture, but in America's long struggle with sexual orientation and gender identity. Sometimes I think this is exactly the kind of sea change we need in our popular culture to make social progress. While I still have faith in the voting system and the theory of our representative democracy, that's also powered by our cultural battle. Whatever it is we try to get on the ballot - gay marriage, ending the war on drugs, the prison industrial complex - it's still a matter of changing the common sense. So when big pop culture figures open up about their sexual identity, it's huge: their fans are forced to look inward to find how they feel, the culture opens up a little bit more, and somewhere some transgender teenager doesn't feel as alone. It's a powerful, important key to progress.
Is it an exciting time to be part of the culture at this moment? It would seem so, but I worry about getting caught up in the anticipation of the world changing before it actually happens. We have, after all, had LGBT icons all throughout our popular culture history, whether they were outed in hindsight like Rock Hudson or cultural mainstays like Elton John. These are people whose very presence in our culture is political, yet despite their ubiquity it doesn't seem like it was enough to normalize their identity. For example, it's ridiculous that someone as inoffensive and mainstream as Ellen Degeneres is still a target for protest movements, albeit impotent ones.
At the same time, Laura Jane Grace and Frank Ocean are huge cultural landmarks in their own way. Against Me! isn't a huge band, but they're in the upper tier of today's punk scene, so their visibility isn't insignificant. Grace is probably the biggest transgender figure in music now. I'm hard pressed to think of a time when a band leader just changed genders during his or her career.
Frank Ocean, on the other hand, is a big deal because of the perception of his communities. Hip hop is multifaceted and contains multitudes, yes, but it's always had the common strain of homophobia, even in early Fresh Prince songs. (Yeah. I had no idea either.) Additionally, the memory of Prop 8 in California is still fresh and relevant today, where some misguided supporters laid the blame for its passing at the black community's feet. Whatever the reality is, the perception exists that the church's influence on the black community has skewed the 70/30 demographic against gay rights. So a fast-rising R&B star suddenly forcing the issue with his very presence is a certifiable event. People who say, "So what? It doesn't matter what his orientation is," are missing the point in an attempt to seem inclusive. It requires more than a progressive shrug. This is a big, interesting deal that will need not only support, but defense and enthusiasm. We don't want the closeted to feel like no one cares -- we want them to feel welcome.
What's even more interesting is that fans and media outlets are still trying to figure out exactly what label to apply to him -- some have settled on bisexuality, others have left it vague, a la Pitchfork's "opening up about his sexuality" headline. It's forcing the common person to think in a more nebulous area between labels, and will hopefully lead a few of them into thinking of sexuality as a more fluid aspect of one's personality. If a few more people come to the conclusion that sexuality is complicated but humanity is constant, Frank Ocean will have done good.
I want to feel like this is a big event, to be caught in the excitement of a world changing, but these matters are always about patience. What we do know is that these things don't happen in a vacuum. I don't want to assign credit where credit isn't due, or pretend to understand the motivations behind Grace and Ocean coming out. They may not even know themselves. But it's interesting to see the cultural domino's zoomed out just over the past year: Obama's evolved support of gay marriage, leading to the NAACP's official support, leading to public statements of support from celebrities like Jay-Z and Will Smith (People change!) Suddenly gay rights are a center stage issue once again, and maybe, just maybe, that helped create an environment where Tom Gabel felt comfortable telling Rolling Stone he was going to become a woman.
That might be too neat of a retelling, something reserved for the consolidation of our story in tomorrow's high school textbooks. But every action has a reaction -- catalysts are launched, conditions are created and things grow from the new fertile soil. While our recent cultural history is exciting, I'm more excited to see what happens next with these new seeds in the ground.