How Frank Ocean Let Me Be Hella Queer
It was a warm night on a farm in rural Washington when I first heard “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean swooning on my cousin’s phone. I remember saying how I couldn’t believe a guy could hit those notes, the crowning heights of the song’s refrain a desperate, soprano plea. I was 17 years old and I had yet to connect any of the years I’d written transgender Deviantart fanfic with anything in the material world, all of it steeped in deep fantasy and desire. But as I got older and as Frank Ocean’s music changed, I found myself listening to his music as a kind of handbook, an instructional tome and portal to a world where I could be anyone I wanted to be. He might not be a reliable Coachella headliner, but I’m not that same kid in Central Washington thanks to Ocean’s music.
It wasn’t so cut and dry, of course. I’d pepper in the idea I wanted to be a girl to my friends here and there as a kid, but I barely had the vocabulary to do so. And east of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest, I don’t think my friends did, either. The girls I dated in high school weren’t interested, taking it personally that I had sexual ideation that wasn’t geared toward them. Which, again, is fair given the resources and knowledge we had at that time and place.
Enter Frank Ocean, a singer who seemed to capture all the ways I felt. Yes, I liked girls, and yes, I felt that key sense of longing for more. The bonus track “Golden Girl” spoke to me, too, as there was a rawness from Tyler, the Creator that spoke to the hyper-masculine energy us Central Washington boys did our best to embody. But the majority of the song is about laughing on a tropical island, taking trips on a moped with the one you love. That duality captivates me still.
When I learned he wasn’t interested in the “straight” label, I was all the more interested. And when “Blond” dropped in 2016 I had the same levitating, ethereal experience that many of his fans seemed to at the time. What is this sound? Did that beat switch really happen exactly halfway through “Nights?” My friend and I split a bottle of cheap tequila and ate slices of apple and cheese as we listened to it all the way through, discussing the highs and lows. “White Ferrari,” “Solo, and “Godspeed” each gave me a chance to recall all the love and hurt I’d left behind in my relationships over the years. I was well into my sexual exploration, but I’d yet to make material connections about my gender just yet.
Once I moved to San Francisco I found myself in the wake of another screwed up relationship. At my new house I’d listen to “Blond” and feel even closer to Ocean, shaving my head on a chaotic schedule and always while the album streamed on repeat. But it was when “Chanel” dropped that I understood why I always bonded with his music. “My guy pretty like a girl.” I’m still not sure there’s a song lyric I resonate with more than that (okay, maybe “slow down you crazy child” in Billy Joel’s “Vienna” — flame me).
I felt such curiosity about Ocean, and, consequently, about myself. Seeing both sides, and the concept of what some call binary opposition — two concurrent ideas that at times seem unable to co-exist — landed in a big way. And Ocean displays the same swagger often attributed to actors and rock stars; rubber band-wrapped $1000 Delta gift cards, just for the excess. He sings of belt grinding, dick sucking, riding until eyes roll back, and knowing you’re on “god level, I am I am.” It’s a testament to multi-faceted indulgence, and it was just the anthem I needed for one of the wildest single phases of my life.
Unlike in rural Washington, in San Francisco I found myself moving between desiring and desired. It felt like moving between softness and hardness, between object and subject. It was a natural segue to connect those fantasies of femininity into my new, expansive world. In spring 2023 I’m so far away from that confusing adolescence, and in great thanks to Frank Ocean. I feel comfortable choosing my gender presentation on any given day, opting for my mom’s old earrings or my brother’s hand-me-down pair of baggy jeans. I let myself wear a bra and a dress like middle school always imagined, and I let myself wear the suit I bought for my first fancy date with my now-fiancée.
Occupying that bothness, moving between forms, is what I learned from Ocean’s music. While this is not another Frank Ocean cover album, it is indeed one more thank you letter to the artist my cousin played for me at the end of high school. As anti-transgender legislation sits square in the eye of yet another American political firestorm, I’m more thankful than ever. Thanks to the singer from Louisiana who let the world know there’s somewhere between binaries and sexual preferences for those of us who don’t mind the ambiguity and just like what we like. And that in-between can be as wonderful and shimmering as everywhere else on the sexual and gender spectrums, mopeds racing on the shore.