The Sky Hasn't Fallen - Gay Boxer Orlando Cruz Joins Frank Ocean in the Fight For a Better Future

18/10/2012 22:13 BST | Updated 18/12/2012 10:12 GMT
David Becker, ZUMA Press

Tonight, boxer Orlando Cruz will step into the ring for the biggest fight of his professional life. If he can defeat Jorge Pazos, he'll be just one step away from becoming featherweight world champion. No doubt he'll be nervous - but then, Cruz is a courageous man. Just a fortnight ago he braced himself for an arguably bigger challenge - becoming the first actively competing boxer to announce that he was gay.


Just three months before, the wildly talented singer Frank Ocean made the equally unexpected revelation that his first love had been a man. Neither has said if their decisions were influenced by Barack Obama's historic endorsement of gay marriage back in May, but all taken together it adds up to a remarkable surge forward in the decades-long push for gay visibility.


There are four striking similarities between Cruz and Ocean's announcements. Firstly, the grace and beauty with which they spoke about their experiences. Ocean's letter to the first man he fell for is an exquisitely evocative paean to young love, and how "when we were together the time glided". If you haven't read it, you really should. Cruz is also an eloquent soul, explaining to the Guardian this week that, "I have been living with this thorn inside me. I wanted to take it out of me."


The second and third similarities are related: both Cruz and Ocean come from ethnic backgrounds where gay or bisexual men face particular challenges in coming out and they each work in particularly macho, gay-hostile environments. Despite 50 Cent's absurd, grudging statement on Ocean's decision - "You can call it brave or you can call it marketing" - there can be little doubt that each were surrounded by advisers telling them they had everything to lose professionally by their 'confession'.


For generations, one of the sticks used to beat gay men back into the closet has been the spectre of professional disaster. Ocean surely considered the case of R&B singer Rahsaan Patterson, who many believe was prevented from being a huge star by pernicious homophobia. And Cruz has spoken about the tragedy of closeted gay boxer Emile Griffiths: "He was not living in the moment we are now. He was not as lucky as me."


Yet despite their fears - Ocean has talked of feeling like he could hear "the sky falling" - both men spoke out, voluntarily and without a hint of journalistic blackmail. They also did so while their careers were still on the ascendant, their fourth similarity.


When you compare the two to gay stars like Jodie Foster and Ricky Martin who waited decades to confess what most already knew, missing the moment when they were at the peak of their powers and fame, the courage of Cruz and Ocean seems even more inspiring. This isn't to judge Foster or Martin - who faced different times and pressures - but who can doubt their coming out would have had more positive impact if made earlier? 


Because - make no mistake - one of the main reasons Ocean and Cruz spoke out was because they wanted to be forces for positive change. Like actor Zachary Quinto - another talented, rising gay star - they are being honest publicly to help others who don't have their platform.


As Ocean said of his decision: "I wished at 13 there was somebody I looked up to who would have said something like that, who would have been transparent in that way." Cruz has been even more explicit: "There are two doors to death over this one issue. There is suicidal death - when a gay man cannot stand being unaccepted and takes his own life. And there is homophobic murder."


They are right to think they can make a difference. Gay or bisexual teenagers commit suicide at vastly disproportionate rates to their heterosexual brothers and sisters. Examples like Cruz, Ocean and Quinto can provide hope that they can live a life without shame and fear. But if a celebrity tries to conceal their sexuality until the dread day they are finally outed, then their actions suggest the opposite, that not being heterosexual is indeed an awful thing, a dirty secret.

The wonderful thing for Frank Ocean and for everyone who hoped that his courage would not be punished is that the sky hasn't fallen. Ocean has instead made the sky rise, giving young gay or bisexual people a little more room to breathe. While the online vitriol from some has been predictably vile, an inspiring number of Ocean's peers have stood by his side, from Tyler the Creator to hip hop pioneer Russel Simmons. Ocean's wondrous album Channel Orange has become a critically lauded bestseller.


We can't win Cruz's boxing match tonight for him, though we can hope his bravery will be similarly rewarded and that he will also find support and success. But even if he wins the world title, there's every chance that his greatest achievement will still be that he was the first active boxer to come out as gay, and the hope and inspiration that will provide to thousands of young people across the world.