Black reality television can be a nonsensical world of petty drama and chaos. The issues that trigger huge meltdowns and massive fights only make sense some of the time. Sometimes shows like the Love & Hip-Hop franchise rely on their audience's understanding of a limited worldview, ripe with respectability politics and heteronormativity to create tension for their plotlines. The story of a man and and a woman trying to be together, but thwarted by everything from meddling parents, side chicks, and vengeful exes is recreated over and over again to define clear heroes, villains, and underdogs that that the LHH audience can root for. But interestingly, season after season, there has been an uptick in cast members and storylines that explore the lives of LGBTQ+ people all over the gender and sexuality spectrum.
Wikipedia has compiled its own list of LGBTQ+- identified castmembers on reality television. Love & Hip-Hop comes up again and again on the list, with dozens of queer hip-hop players. When Love & Hip-Hop first aired its Atlanta spin-off in 2012, it was full of woman characters who were sexually fluid. Most of them fit into neat bubbles of mainstream beauty for Black women, and were often romantically linked to men as well. For example, Mimi Faust was introduced as the girlfriend of music producer Stevie J and also the mother of his child. However, he was carrying on a relationship with another woman, Joseline Hernandez. It would later be revealed that Hernandez and Faust once had sex together with Stevie. Faust’s best friend Ariane Simone also came out as bi-curious during the first season. The queerness of these women was conveniently sexy in the way that women dating other women tends to be categorized under the male gaze.
But today, the LGBTQ+ landscape on Love & Hip-Hop is completely different.
LHHATL has added several trans cast members, including D. Smith, a female songwriter and producer, and Chris Gould, who later dated Faust. Other variations of the show have taken representation of queer people of color even further. Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood introduced the first openly gay couple in the franchise, Milan and Miles, in the second season. Several episodes featured public service announcements that sought to help people struggling with sexual identity, and there was a special episode in which experts weighed in on homophobia in hip-hop.
On the original New York installment, Jonathan Fernandez, a makeup artist, was caught in a love triangle with his boyfriend, Trent. Fernandez, who hopes to educate the public on the dangers of conversion therapy, told me that he thinks the boom in LGBTQ+ characters comes from the straight community’s desire to learn more about them. When Love & Hip-Hop: Miami premiered this year, openly gay aspiring rapper Bobby Lytes had relationship drama and a notorious beef with another openly gay cast member, Alvin. Malik and Jeffrey White, who joined him on LHHM, were also openly gay.
The franchise, created by Mona Scott-Young, is keeping up with the rest of the media world by embracing the fact that queer and trans people have the same complex experiences with heartache and miscommunication as everyone else. And they, too, can make damn good television. Ratings for each franchise, brand new Miami installment excepted, have grown steadily over the 6 years since it debuted.
Ray “Misster Ray” Cunningham, who made his first reality television appearance over a decade ago on BET’s College Hill, told me, “The urban LGBTQ+ community is a cash cow for network TV. Who else is more over-the-top and comical than us? You see us everywhere now (Netflix, Vh1, Bravo, Lifetime and TVOne). There was a time, back when I first started at BET, I was one of four gay TV personalities on cable.” And while these strides are worth noting, there's still work to be done.
Fernandez, from the New York installment, was also forced to undergo conversion therapy as a child. He told me that he wants “more LGBTQ+ personalities on television as main cast members and not always just the best friend.” Added Cunningham: “We’re not just catty accessories to beautiful women who have messy lives.”
There is a lot to criticize about Love & Hip Hop, particularly in how the shows depict women, unhealthy relationships and family dysfunction; producers have been accused of fabricating storylines, and the violence is sometimes out of control. But underneath all of that clutter, the franchise is setting an example for how to include the LGBTQ+ in the broader hip-hop and pop culture landscape. That, in itself, is revolutionary.