On a recent episode of America’s Next Top Model, contestant Denzel Wells, who identifies as straight, said he did not want to lose the competition to a “guy wearing heels.” The comment referred to his gay housemate Will Jardell, who strutted the Top Model catwalk in six-inch stilettos. Since his remark aired, Wells has received sizable backlash from LGBT fans of the show. He has been called “Fucking Cow Face Homophobic,” and “So dumb to say that…#OnlyGodCanJudge," and told there are “People hurt by your bigotry.” In the eyes of LGBT people, at least those vocal on social media, Wells is a homophobe.
Do Wells’s comments on the show make him a homophobe? Or is this just a case of an innocuous comment being blown out of proportion?
As a former reality star on MTV’s The Real World: Philadelphia and the first out black man to appear on the show, I know how easy it is for someone’s words to be misconstrued, particularly after countless hours of life and dialogue are filtered through the hands of content producers, network executives, and editors, who all are in the business of creating the most exciting show possible for their audience. This is not to say that all hurtful comments made by television personalities are by-products of crafty editing. But I do know from firsthand experience that what is said is not always what was meant, particularly when taken out of context. And these comments can haunt you for the rest of your life.
While filming my season of The Real World, I made a comment regarding the other gay housemate, Willie Hernandez, that was taken out of context. I said, “We would never be friends out of this house, because he is not the type of gay guy I would hang around.” LGBT people immediately began to make comments on message boards saying I hated “effeminate” gay men and that I had internalized self-hatred. Both statements could not be further from the truth. I have been a proud openly gay man since I was 18. My candor was to share that not all gay men get along or hang out. We are humans who have different interests and make different choices. And that is OK.
It’s been more than a decade since The Real World: Philadelphia aired. I’ve grown up. My views have evolved, as has the media landscape. While the Internet has allowed for some extraordinary progress in creating conversations about diversity, it also allows uninformed comments that one has made in the past to live forever. Those looking to tear you or your accomplishments down can do so with the click of a button, as if one faux pas is enough to define your character for the rest of your life.
As a single gay father of two boys, I am also on the receiving end of ignorance. Both online and in the real world, I receive comments such as “You can’t really be gay. You have kids,” or “How did you get custody of a kid, being openly gay?” Are these comments annoying? Eye roll–inducing? Oftentimes, yes. But I never find them malicious. Most people do not intend to be harmful. For the most part, they are just uneducated on what is appropriate to say.
Recently, I spoke with Wells, who is currently an actor on Tyler Perry’s OWN drama, If Loving You Is Wrong. He told me his comment was not meant to skewer his fellow contestant’s sexuality. “I’ve always seen Will as Will, not ‘gay Will,’” he said. “I was just making an observation of what he wore and how that would play into him booking jobs. I’ve never felt that he is less than me because he wears heels or is openly gay.”
“I also said that I didn't want to lose to some of my other male roommates and highlighted qualities about them which I felt would be a challenge for them getting booked for a big job,” he continued. “It was my way of sharing why I deserve to win this competition. But the entire situation was taken out of context. I believe everyone should be treated equally and with respect regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, or race.”
Does Wells understand how others could be hurt by his words? Well, after an hour-long conversation with me, Wells definitely understood why LGBT people would be hurt by his words, and he vowed to be more conscious of what he says.
In turn, I would urge LGBT people to likewise engage our perceived adversaries with love and the gift of knowledge before branding them homophobes for one act. First, verify intent. If it’s not malicious, then educate them instead of “checking” them. It is important to remember that if we treat people who could be allies as enemies, we can only alienate them from our cause.
We can’t expect to combat ignorance with hate. Only love and the light of knowledge propel others to grow. I know words hurt, but by being open and checking our egos at the door, we can help others gain the emotional vocabulary that will change the world for the better.
KARAMO BROWN is a host of The OWN Show and the proud father of two sons. Follow him on Twitter @KaramoBrown.