Why Jamal Lyon’s Sexuality on ‘Empire’ Is Disrespectful to the Queer Community


Queer representation still doesn’t make up a significant part of the media we consume. That is why it is always refreshing to see a TV show starring a character that identifies as something other than straight. Empire is a juggernaut when it comes to ratings, and Jamal Lyon, one of the main black characters, is gay. However, things happened during the mid-season finale of the show’s sophomore airing that has made me think that queer representation is a joke on the relatively new TV series.

This post contains spoilers regarding the show and Jamal’s character arc. You have been warned!

For those of you who might not know, Empire focuses on the Lyon family and the major story arc revolves around the battle regarding who will run the musical legacy. It stars Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, the wonderful Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon (the role also nabbed her an Emmy nomination this year), along with Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere) as their three sons.

Jamal is gay, and the show’s first season revolved around him coming out and dealing with his father’s homophobic attitude. As the story progressed, it was revealed that years ago Lucious had forced Jamal into a relationship with Olivia (Raven Symone) and she showed up with a little girl with Jamal being the potential father. Keep in mind that Empire is a soapy musical drama, and that is why things don’t always work out for the main characters in the best possible way for dramatic effect.

I understood Jamal’s previous relationship with Olivia because he was in the closet during the time. So, I let that whole thing slide because the little girl’s real parentage was also revealed and Olivia went away with her. What I couldn’t let slide was Jamal’s treatment during the mid-season finale of season two.

The writers broke the relationship between Jamal and Michael, again! They then proceeded to hook him up with Skye, played by Alicia Keys. The logic behind the hookup was that Jamal was an adoring fan and their little song-writing jam session ended up with the two having sex. After having sex with Skye, Jamal still identified as gay, and I was left trying not to get a headache.

vlcsnap-2015-12-07-19h10m26s16The whole thing felt disrespectful to me. Jamal coming out of the closet was a major arc for his character back in season one. He was shown as an openly gay singer in season two. But all of that character development went down the drain when Empire had him have sex with Skye for dramatic purposes.

Such representation of a gay man doesn’t do any favors for the LGBT community. Why couldn’t the writers have Jamal come out as bisexual? Because that would’ve at least made him having sex with Skye a bit more believable. Did the writers not do that because bisexuality is still considered a term that doesn’t really exist? Some people (even in the LGBT community) still think that being bisexual is a pit stop to being fully gay, and it is sad to see Empire follow suit.

TV shows having queer representation is awesome, but I draw the line when characters change their sexual preference for cheap shock value. Even though it is a soapy drama, I thought Empire was a lot better than this!

I wouldn’t have felt this bad if straight characters were handled in the same manner. If Jamal, an openly gay man, can have sex with a woman, and then still say he’s gay afterwards, why can’t his straight brothers hook up with other men and say that they’re still straight after their encounter?

That’s because writers will never allow such a thing. Unfortunately being straight is something that is set in stone, even when it comes to fictional characters, while being queer means that your sexuality can change because it is basically a ‘choice’ and thus, it can be altered depending on the needs of the show. The worst part is that seeing a gay man having sex with a woman might strengthen the notion that some straight viewers have about gays being ‘fixed’ if they find the right girl.

For me, Jamal having sex with Skye did nothing for his character development, and it was obvious the scene took place during the mid-season finale just to shock the viewers. Empire might use the event to make Jamal realize that he is indeed bisexual because hello! Bisexuality exists! But I doubt the show will do such a thing. And with how things went, there’s a good chance Jamal might hook up with more girls just to rile up the viewers.

It should be noted that Jussie Smollett himself identifies as gay. I know one shouldn’t confuse an actor with the parts they play, but knowing a real life gay man is willing to play Jamal in such a manner makes me even more disappointed.

Empire season two aired it’s mid-season finale on December 2, 2015 and will be back on March 30, 2016.

Are you a fan of Empire? What do you think of Jamal having sex with a woman and still identifying as gay? Let us know!

Author: Farid-ul-Haq

Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.

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