Despite how much we may pretend that watching reality television is beneath us, there’s something to be said for the rise of the Love & Hip Hop franchise. The popular NYC-to-Atlanta-to-Hollywood series has given us peak ratchet-ness every Monday night along with pop cultural moments and new catchphrases (Cardi B’s “Forevaaaa” still lives on…forevaaaaa).
But the latest season of Love & Hip Hop Hollywood is perpetuating a terrible trend that’s more detrimental than it is entertaining. We’re halfway into the series and it has become clear that the show is extremely problematic in its treatment and narratives surrounding Black gay men and LGBTQ culture at large.
Two of its new openly gay cast members, celebrity stylists Lazell “Zellswag” Shaw and Misster Ray, are overtly fetishized and stereotyped based on their sexual orientation. Zell serves as the hyper-aggressive gay sex siren on the show that’s quick to react with violence, whereas Misster Ray is a more feminine, plus-size, messy counterpart.
Despite the typical madness of the show, these two are clearly being tokenized and accessorized as fashionable sidekicks to cast member Masika Kalysha, who refers to them as her “gay husbands” on the show. Masika even goes so far as to objectifying them as pets when they disappoint her; she literally snaps and pouts at them while making it a point to put them in “timeout” as if she owns them.
Unlike the rest of the characters, Zell and Misster Ray don’t have a storyline of their own except serving as the gossiping queens and catty accessories to the straight women on the show. They barely have interaction with their straight male castmates (except one time when Zell was used as a ploy to bait women for Boobie Gibson during a pool party), nor do we get to see another side of these two gay men outside of the mess ensured within their girl squads. In short, they are caricatures of dated stereotypes of the often vapid and subservient images of Black gay men we have historically seen in pop culture.
While some may argue that it’s progressive for Love & Hip Hop to have more LGBTQ cast members, I argue that all the show has done is perpetuate the same tired tropes and have now placed them on a larger platform. This form of equality isn’t desirable when it simply reinforces disrespect and marginalization. As a Black gay man, my personal want for more LGBTQ characters in the series didn’t mean the same botched up mischaracterizations that have already been overused on television.
Are gay men messy? Like any other identity group, yes. Are gay men sexual? Same answer. But that’s not all we are and have ever been, and if Love & Hip Hop is only going to continue to reduce us to instigating sexiods whose sole purpose is to accommodate the straight folks around us — they got the wrong community.
I would like to believe that Zell isn’t only essential on this show for dressing incredible, stirring the pot with straight women, and ducking thrown drinks. Misster Ray clearly has more to offer than serving as the more reformed ying to Zell’s yang as both of them spend most of their time on the show throwing shade and nothing more. This is not to say that all of these characteristics aren’t necessary — but it also shouldn’t be this damn one-dimensional.
If straight castmates Ray J and A1 can party like rockstars, be husbands trying to mature, and showcase their hustle: Why can’t these gay men on the show be afforded the same nuance and complexity? To strip these LGBTQ castmates of their humanity not only does a disservice to them, but to the authenticity of the show as a whole.
It’s often speculated that the plotlines on Love & Hip Hop are heavily scripted and even imaged. While I may not be able to disprove all of them, I can definitely say that their current portrayals of Black gay men is definitely not “reality” TV. Start serving more realness on your LGBTQ characters Love & Hip Hop, or the ‘shade’ from me will be turning the channel.
Ernest Owens is the Editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly. He has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, HuffPost and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and ernestowens.com.