Editor’s note: After this piece was published, Fox announced that Empire would return for a season 6, but there are no immediate plans at this time to bring back Jussie Smollett.
With the future of Empire uncertain, and even more so Jussie Smollett’s role on the show, it would be unfortunate to lose such an important character to Black and gay culture from television.
Jamal Lyon’s character is unlike any we’ve ever seen. While white gay men and lesbians have been on television for years and have been depicted as layered beings, the same cannot be said for our Black queer brothers and sisters. Yes, we’ve seen Black queer characters on television before, but they often exemplified the stereotypes that Black queer people are placed in: the friend in the middle of coming to terms with his or her sexuality, the hardcore lesbian, or the gay best friend who is often the flamboyant comedic relief.
Jamal is different. He’s a multifaceted successful entertainer, friend, family member and a businessman, who happens to be gay…and out. However, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to endure his share of the hate that can, unfortunately, come with being openly gay. Not only has he had to deal with the disdain from society but even within his family dynamic.
Who can forget the flashback of his father, Lucious Lyon, throwing him in a trashcan in a fit of rage after a toddler Jamal walks into a room in high heels?
Or the time when a young Jamal visits his mother Cookie Lyon in prison for the last time before his cowardly father ends their marriage, that ends with his mother painfully trying to explain to him, her precious son, that he is “different” and warns him of the difficulty that will lie ahead.
Jamal’s tragedies expose the daily struggle that specifically Black gay men can experience at the hands of their family members. The abuse viewers witnessed Jamal endure from those closest to him forced many to analyze the hurt they may have bestowed upon their queer loved ones.
Even into adulthood, Jamal’s abuse at the hands of his father did not stop. Lucious continued to refer to Jamal’s live-in boyfriends as “roommates,” or insulted him with gay slurs anytime Jamal stood tall against his homphobia. He also pushed for Jamal to suppress his identity and threatened that his career would suffer as a result. One of the first triumphs we saw and applauded was Jamal coming out on stage, despite his father’s disapproval and his own fears that what his father embedded into his brain would come to fruition.
While the majority of people in his life supported Jamal and his openness, not everyone was as welcoming. Other artists opted not to work with him. He was an easy target in arguments, often with his masculinity tested and questioned. It took Lucious having a near-death experience for him to show Jamal the love, respect and acceptance he deserves.
It’s been a joy to watch Jamal develop from the soft-spoken middle brother to the Lyon family superstar. His loyalty to his family has never wavered, almost to a fault. He supported his brothers through mental health crises and unplanned fatherhood. A complex character, he participated in Lyon family cover-ups, ran the family business and almost lost his life in order to save his father. Through it all, he remained the heart of the Lyon family.
His character has exposed the world to healthy Black gay relationships and how a family can support their queer loved ones and even introduced living with and/or dating someone who is living with HIV, another unprecedented storyline which opened up national dialogue about the importance of sexual health, access to the pill that can prevent HIV transmission, PrEP, and the continuing rise in new HIV infections in young gay men. On top of that, thanks to Jamal Lyon, we’ve witnessed the first ever Black gay wedding on television.
The Jamal Lyon character has been instrumental in normalizing the depiction of Black gay men on television. His character paved the way for other complex Black queer characters, like bisexual Nova Borderlon on Queen Sugar and the pansexual warlock Ambrose on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Just last month, a 15-year-old southern boy died by suicide after being bullied for being queer. Queer and heterosexual people alike need to see Jamal Lyon living and loving out loud on a weekly basis. With ongoing violent attacks towards the LGBTQ community and a current administration that is openly opposed to LGBTQ rights, young Black queer people need Jamal as an example of what’s possible.
Photo: Getty Images
Brenda Alexander is a West Philly native with a love of the 3 W’s: writing, wine and Whitney Houston. When she’s not working, you can catch her praising Jesus with a bomb Gospel playlist or annoying anyone around her as she listens to Christmas music all year round (her fascination with the holiday even produced a Christmas book). Her work has been featured on Mayvenn’s Real Beautiful blog, xonecole and CurlyNikki . Follow her excursions via Instagram @trulybrenda_