Frank Ocean made a bold, career-defining decision ahead of his 2012 debut album. Before "Channel Orange" was released, the R&B singer silenced the growing speculation about his sexual orientation.
In a poignant letter, posted on Tumblr and initially intended as the album's liner notes, he sweetly detailed falling in love with a man, something he sang about on the album. It was a groundbreaking move for an artist in R&B and hip-hop, genres long riddled with unbridled homophobia.
"I don't know what happens now, and that's alrite," he wrote. "I don't have any secrets I need kept anymore." What happened? He became a critic's darling, scored a Grammy and topped numerous year-end lists.
But nearly two years later, it's worth asking, has the music industry and audiences grown any more comfortable with gay culture?
Although the film and TV worlds have increased their number of LGBT stories, there is still no openly gay pop star ruling the charts and driving the conversation the way Beyoncé, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake do.
The openly gay British soul singer Sam Smith may be narrowing that gap with his recent chart success, but the landscape of mainstream music is far behind other major entertainment mediums in with gay issues.
Not that there aren't visibly out performers: From Ricky Martin to Adam Lambert to Scissor Sisters to Tegan and Sara to Dave Koz to Gossip, they are making music in various genres. But name another openly gay performer who has managed to reach the same heights, or influence, and maintained the same cultural relevance as Elton John.
The lack of gay superstars in pop is especially odd considering how much of today's music finds inspiration from gay culture. But the tide appears to, finally, be changing.
'Same Love' breaks through
It was a big deal when breakout Seattle hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis issued "Same Love" in 2012. A hip-hop song celebrating same-sex marriage, from a straight rap act at that, was unheard of — especially as hit rappers like Eminem use anti-gay slurs without consequence — and it became a Top 40 smash. It was even nominated for song of the year at the Grammys.
But as courageous and poignant as "Same Love" was (during the Grammy performance dozens of gay and straight couples were married), it's hard not to wonder if the song would have enjoyed similar success had it come from a gay rapper.
Yes, artists like Jay Z and Adam Levine and Pink and many others have championed marriage equality, and pop divas Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Rihanna have incorporated choreography and vernacular lifted from gay culture like Madonna before them, but the thought of mainstream gay performers still seems curiously distant.
A couple of weeks ago, the L.A. Pride Festival attracted tens of thousands to a three-day celebration of the LGBT community. The bill was packed with queer acts like Mary Lambert, Azealia Banks and Ryan Cassata, with gay-friendly performers Jennifer Hudson, the Bangles, Betty Who, Deborah Cox and Danity Kane as main attractions.
L.A.'s Pride is one of the biggest gay celebrations in the country, with more than 400,000 participants, spectators and marchers in this year's parade. There was plenty to celebrate: Marriage equality continues to make landmark strides; the transgender civil rights movement is in the middle of a major breakthrough and the sports world got its first publicly gay athlete to play in a pro game.
Pop music has long been a youth-driven medium, which should have pushed it to the forefront of progressive thought — especially as society's consciousness toward equal rights reached a tipping point.
After Ocean stunned the industry with his beautifully crafted letter, he was embraced, even heralded, by many — although he did face criticism for not divulging more details or actually using "gay" or "bisexual" in the letter.
But what Ocean did was something many out performers didn't have the luxury of doing: Addressing who he was on his own terms. By not subjecting himself to the People magazine cover story or PR-orchestrated announcement that has long been the standard, Ocean made his sexuality far less important than the music.
In the wake of Ocean's glass ceiling moment, there's been indicators that the landscape is changing — albeit slowly.
The queer rap scene has gotten more notice in the last two years, as explosive performers like Mykki Blanco, Big Freedia, Le1f and Zebra Katz have gotten mainstream notice with flamboyant aesthetics (many incorporate drag or subversive performance art into their act) and unapologetically gay rhymes.