Empire is my guilty pleasure. Every week, I enjoy the ratchet soap-opera vibes and the subtle social issues the Lee Daniels-created series touches, especially as it relates to the LGBTQ community. Empire has boldly discussed sexuality and gender in ways that television dramas avoid. In three seasons, we have seen sexual fluidity in Black men, how homophobia impacts Black masculinity and the nuances of same-sex relationships. But for all the strides Empire has taken towards better LGBTQ representation, there are serious issues in how the series tackles Black gay men and their love lives.
Over the past two seasons, Jamal Lyon (played by Jussie Smollett) has been in a “situationship” with Derek (played by Tobias Truvillion), a hypermasculine hip-hop producer who is on the “DL” (very 1990s). Jamal is seduced and oversexed by Derek’s bad-boy persona and, as a result, develops a drug habit, which forces him into rehab. During Jamal’s time in rehab, he meets Philip, his openly gay therapist. Jamal and Philip start a sexual relationship and Jamal is inspired to leave Derek for good. But when Derek misses their freak sessions, he finally decides to come out as gay and wants Jamal back. When Jamal is faced with choosing between Derek, his emotionally abusive ex, or Phillip, there is a major barometer used to make the final decision: sex. Derek thinks he can fuck better than Philip, and is therefore entitled to Jamal. Unbelievably, Jamal agrees.
Boy, bye! I’m sorry, Mr. Daniels and team, but this is problematic AF.
During the first season, Jamal wasn’t a gay stereotype. He was a multi-faceted character who was both talented and resilient. Three seasons in, an admired symbol for Black gay strength is now consumed by dick and ass. Arguably, Jamal has more sex scenes than his two brothers. Jamal’s countless sexual “situationships” has found him getting down and dirty in his house, studio, and even at Empire headquarters. His love life is filled with petty hook-ups and flings that don’t go anywhere. Jamal is portrayed as lost, confused, and desperate, with a lonesome appetite for anything to intimately fulfill him.
Tragically, the gay black men in Jamal’s love life are one-dimensional, often only serving as a sexual fetish. His first boyfriend was a stereotypical “spicy Latino” — a relationship that ends with Jamal catching him giving random felatio to a studio exec. Jamal then briefly dates a flirty Black gay filmmaker named Ryan, who gets butt-naked on his father Lucious’ desk within the first two episodes. This romance shortly dies down once Jamal’s sexual fluidity is explored with Skye Summers (played by Alicia Keys). Interesting enough, the two of them don’t have a raunchy sex scene and their chemistry seems more genuine than any of the men he’s dated. Once this opposite-sex love affair ends, he finds himself with Derek (who wants lustful hook-ups) and Phillip, a man willing to throw his professional ethics just for a booty-call. None of the hetero characters have this messy of a sex life.
Sadly, Empire perpetuates a lazy stereotype: the myth of the lonely, hypersexual Black gay man. Maybe this is the imagery the creators believe people want to see. That said, Jamal Lyon was and is groundbreaking, but breaking new ground comes with a responsibility that the show is ignoring. Jussie Smollett’s character is one of few black gay characters on television, he shouldn’t be reduced to a sex object. We need nuanced images of gay men beyond toxic fallacies of sexual dependency and entitlement.
On another note: for Black gay men, our honest, lived experiences — and the unfair disparities that come from it — gives us the right to guard our joy at all times. It’s not easy living in a world where we face the dual realities of homophobia and racism. Therefore, when a hit television show, that trends on social media every week, drives problematic narratives — it makes it harder for Black gay men, like myself, to debunk archaic beliefs.
During last week’s episode, Jamal and Cookie discussed the harmful stereotypes about African-Americans in the music industry. While the commentary was powerful, ironically, Empire perpetuates similar stereotypes about LGBTQ people, specifically Black gay men. It’s not enough to have gay story-lines slapped on television. We need fleshed out, human characters, even for Empire’s standard.
Mr. Daniels, as a Black gay man, you should know better. Be careful with how you portray us. Yes, I know Empire is just television but, for many Americans, Jamal Lyon is the first Black gay man they will meet. Our representation matters, too.