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  • “What’s Love But a Second Hand Emotion?”Man-on-Man Passion in the Contemporary Black Gay Romance Novel
  • Marlon B. Ross (bio)

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Marlon B. Ross

Princeton © 2012

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In the midst of a violent, scorching summer, singer-songwriter Frank Ocean plopped a hot declaration of man-on-man passion that created some media sizzle without the expected explosive backlash by ostensibly homophobic hip hop and rap artists and fans. Instead of the hoped for rash of homophobic rants, rappers and hip hop heads instead came to Ocean’s side, more like a well-orchestrated chorus of brotherly and sisterly love than a raucous clamor of personal disclaimers and sexual shame. Much like President Obama’s earlier calculated embrace of gay marriage after a season of pretending to evolve morally and the resulting lack of backlash from black voters hoped for and predicted in mass media, the hip hop public sphere calculated a needed rebranding in relation to queerness after a long season of pretending not to know nothing bout being down with that. Although there is much to be said about Ocean’s savvy declaration of youthful love for another man, I want to highlight two aspects of the declaration that reveal so much about the articulation of black man-on-man passion, the way it gets labeled and managed discursively in the national imaginary and materially in the on-the-ground messiness we call everyday experience.

First, as many media commentators immediately noted, Ocean did not label himself “gay,” “bisexual,” or “homosexual.” He resisted identifying himself according to the usual script and “coming out” narrative demanded by what queer theorists Lisa Duggan, Michael Warner, and Jasbir Puar have theorized as homonormativity, an emerging hegemony on the meaning and practice of variant sexualities geared toward assimilation into the nation’s racial, class, and gender status quo.1 Guided by the largely white middle-class lgbtq lobby on behalf of “marriage equality,” homonormativity fosters an ideological regime in which erotic attraction is fixed at birth, is fixated binarily on a single person, either male or female, and derives from a social identity as deep as race but as superficial to character as skin color. In the new homonorm, no falling in love with body parts or nonhumans is allowed, no polyandry or polygamy, no free anonymous promiscuity, no sex for hire. In the homonorm, queer love follows a heteroromance script, the only difference being that the queer person has an additional obligation of “coming out,” achieving an awareness of and pride in loving someone of the same gender—a difference deemed wholly inconsequential somatically, psychologically, politically, morally, and ethically. Neither in his tumblr declaration nor in the lyrics of the song “Thinking about You” does Ocean follow this requisite uncloseting of fixed desire. Instead, in line with black vernacular traditions of sexual attraction, Ocean insists on the intensity, fluidity, and indeterminateness of [End Page 670] passion as a tricky transaction between desiring subject and desirable object. More than sexuality, race is the uber-motif of the media sizzle over Ocean’s declaration of man-onman love, for the hoped-for shock of a black “rapper” “coming out” as “gay” is intended to affix homophobia to the intrinsic character of black men in the same way that they are stigmatized with the label “hypermasculine” by projecting the maladies of gangsterism, gunplay, assault, promiscuity, rape, and abandonment onto them alone. Ocean’s industry supporters and media outlets responded, though not with the expected homophobic panic, instead with another kind of categorical mania, facilely translating his time-bound, circumscribed declaration into a fixed identity: they insisted that falling for a man—or as Ocean puts it in the lyrics of the song in question, “And though you were my first time / A new feel”—that a youthful passion for another man must necessarily result in being “gay,” a term now so ideologically loaded and locked-up in relation to race, gender, and class that it signals the drive to assimilate sexual outliers into a new national homonorm of romance ideology. Ocean’s lyrics seem to anticipate the very response that the song receives, when...