Earlier this week, the Internet received a gift it didn’t even know it needed: grainy footage of Frank Ocean, decked out in some seriously bejewelled tights, stomping the runway in a walk-off with former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Gia Gunn. This was just one of many videos which surfaced online from Ocean’s Paris Is Burning-themed 30th birthday party; others depicted viral superstar Joanne the Scammer singing "Happy Birthday" (iconic!) and the musician blowing out candles nestled snugly into an Eiffel Tower-shaped cake.
There’s something undeniably joyous about seeing Ocean celebrate queer culture in such an authentic way, not least because he himself has become a role model to scores of LGBTQ teens worldwide. It was in 2012 that the artist penned a lengthy, heartfelt letter which told a searing story of unrequited love. It was almost uncomfortably honest at times, shedding light on his bisexuality and the feelings he had grappled with up until that point: “To my first love, I’m grateful for you,” he wrote. “Grateful that even though it wasn’t what I hoped for and even though it was never enough, it was.”
Uploaded with little fanfare to the artist’s Tumblr page, the brutally honest letter – initially intended as the liner notes to his career-defining channel ORANGE album – resonated with readers worldwide for various reasons. Crucially, Frank Ocean did not rely on a sensationalized ‘coming out’ story for sales or headlines; instead, he humanized queerness in his own, low-key way by linking it to the universal narrative of unreciprocated affection. Not only did he illuminate the messy complexities of his own sexuality – and the stigma which comes alongside it – he chose to do so by penning a poignant love note which could have been written by any one of us. Instead of sensationalizing his sexuality – which, ironically, countless headlines would go on to do for him – he stripped his story back, relying on raw, human emotion to clarify the rumors swirling around him.
Since then, his subtle celebrations of queer culture have remained personal – which is especially refreshing in the context of a world determined to commodify queerness. From corporations like Pepsi and Heineken to pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, it’s never been more tempting to dip into the worlds of drag queens, black culture and catchy protest slogans to make a quick buck.
In that sense, this themed party is just another chapter in Ocean’s lengthy love affair with his own queerness. By choosing to stage an extravagant tribute to Paris Is Burning, the musician is symbolically penning yet another love letter: this time, it’s addressed to black queer icons like Pepper LaBeija, Octavia St Laurent and Willi Ninja, all of whom were instrumental in both creating and popularizing the ballroom culture which queer communities worldwide are keeping alive to this day.
The element of race is doubly important today; we know for a fact that racism, misogyny and transphobia are all particularly prominent within queer communities both online and offline. Prejudice on dating apps has been well-documented, whereas the violent battles fought by activists like Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormé DeLarverie have been largely erased, most notably in the disgustingly whitewashed Hollywood recreation of the Stonewall riots. When considered alongside the rise of the ‘alt right gays’ (they’re called androphiles, apparently), the fact that Ocean specifically pays tribute to a series of African-American and Latinx queer pioneers can not be under-estimated: with this in mind, his party can be seen not only as a celebration, but also a reclamation of the culture mainstream outlets are so determined to steal from.
It is worth noting here that Jenny Livingston, the director of Paris Is Burning, has been met with similar criticism, most notably from black feminist icon bell hooks. In Chapter 9 of Black Looks: Race and Representation, hooks not only highlights that the film’s subjects “worship at the throne of whiteness,” she also points to Livingston’s consistent refusal to comment critically on her own position as a white woman documenting the lives and experiences of a cast predominantly comprised of people of color.
Finally, she argues that the glamor of the balls is used to mask the hardships of those involved, most notably Venus Xtravaganza, who we learn has been murdered during filming: “Having served the purpose of ‘spectacle’, the film abandons [Xtravaganza]. The audience does not see Venus after the murder. There are no scenes of grief. To put it crassly, her dying is upstaged by spectacle. Death is not entertaining.”
Although these critiques are all wholly valid, hooks’ interrogation of representation has never hindered the documentary’s success – which, ironically, somewhat proves her point that it’s the ideal film for “voyeurs of black gay subculture”. But Ocean is not a voyeur; therefore, in his hands, references to the film become uncritical and purely celebratory.
We know that trans women of color are still being murdered at alarming rates, we know that racism is more prevalent than ever and we know that marginalized people are still being superficially celebrated by artists unwilling to actually confront their struggles. This is precisely why the videos depicting the sheer joy with which he gets his fucking life in those sparkly tights are so precious: this is a star celebrating a culture which belongs to him and seeking out the glorious escapism that these balls are universally celebrated for. We must be critical and we must remember that discrimination exists, but Ocean continues to do his part by never exploiting his sexuality and always remaining true to himself. In world increasingly dominated by regressive, dystopian politicians and money-grabbing corporations, Ocean’s own private reclamation of black queer culture is both powerful and completely joyous to watch.
For more of our in-depth features, read about why the internet is fat-shaming Kanye West right here.