Tyler, the Creator’s ‘coming out’ proves the media has a problem with the complexities of queer experience
Whether or not you’re a fan of Tyler, the Creator, you will have undoubtedly heard that Garden Shed, a track from his newly-leaked album Scum Fuck Flower Boy, is possibly his coming-out story.
“You don’t have to hide,” he sings, “Garden shed for the garçons/ them feelings I was guarding.” Later in the track he makes reference to fellow Odd Future member Frank Ocean, who also made headlines for opening up about his sexuality: “Thought it was a phase/ Thought it would be like the Frank poof, gone/ But it’s still going on.” Tyler gets less metaphorical elsewhere on the album, stating that he’s been “kissing white boys since 2004.” Naturally, the internet lost its collective mind, bringing up old tweets as apparent evidence.
I TRIED TO COME OUT THE DAMN CLOSET LIKE FOUR DAYS AGO AND NO ONE CARED HAHAHHAHAHA
— Tyler, The Creator (@tylerthecreator) April 13, 2015
Tyler is, of course, a notorious troll, making it difficult to take anything he says seriously, and stories about sexuality realistically shouldn’t be making headlines in this day and age. It’s 2017, some people aren’t straight – it’s not a big deal. It becomes a big deal, however, in the context of Tyler’s alleged past homophobia; not only was he recorded using the word ‘fag’ a grand total of 213 times on 2011 album Goblin (which he’s said he doesn’t see as a slur), he’s previously written questionable lyrics about the trans community and rebranded a white power slogan for a gay pride T-shirt – although he did have a thorough, intellectual and arguably justifiable explanation for the latter.
His supposed admission is also important in the context of the hip-hop industry, which is still said to be extremely homophobic. This is another conversation in and of itself – openly queer stars like Mykki Blanco, Young M.A. and iLoveMakonnen are continuing to thrive, whereas others like Young Thug are making progressive statements on gender identity, meaning that there are at least growing spheres of acceptance in hip-hop. Still, the stigma stands; Ocean was praised hugely for his moving open letter, whereas the general online consensus stands that Tyler was brave to (maybe) come out in his lyrics or at least be willing to spark a conversation.
But what now? The internet can be an intrusive place, allowing stars little to no privacy. Queer people in general are afforded even less personal space; it’s not unusual for gay men to be asked whether they top or bottom before being asked where they grew up, whereas women in queer spaces are often subject to misogyny and other forms of abuse. Speculation around Tyler’s sexuality will likely prove to be harmful and exemplary of why stars often keep quiet; analysis of his work as an artistic statement is one thing, complex, unsubstantiated explorations of who he might or might not sleep with are another. Then, there’s his past use of homophobic language, which he calls a reclamation – will fans be quick to forgive him if he says it was internalised homophobia? How quickly can artists be let off the hook when it comes to these discussions?
Elsewhere, press outlets will doubtless use Tyler as a figurehead rather than an individual case. Remember when Stormzy was featured on an NME cover as a “poster boy for depression” without his consent? Conversations around mental health are steadily increasing in the music industry, but it’s arguable that Stormzy’s case is seen as doubly progressive because of the ongoing stigma around black masculinity – an argument which various PoC writers have outlined. It’s one of the reasons why Moonlight was celebrated as such a necessary film – we live in a society where the only comment a police officer has to make about his colleague murdering Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black victim, is that he “looked like a bad dude.” These stereotypes can be fatal, which is why its especially important to change the conversation.
But these conversations need to switch authentically, and autonomy needs to be placed in the hands of the subjects. The lyrics might be an artistic allusion to a wider narrative; they might not truly be his ‘coming-out’ story at all, but if they are, let Tyler talk. As for the media, it’s important to avoid generalisation – the specificity of Tyler’s past, present and potential future make his story anomalous in the case of mainstream examples of queer culture, but it’s important here to remember that intersections matter and that his story is his own. Ironically, the reaction to Garden Shed has probably more revelatory than the song itself; it proves the amount of emotional labour needed to address these subjects, and it exemplifies that there’s a mould for LGBTQ people which lets some coming-out stories pass without comment. Tyler, although problematic, has always broken that mould – which is precisely why he’s still one of the most interesting stars in the game.