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Op-ed: Empire Keeps Getting Gayer — But Pop Stars Always Have Been Queer

Op-ed: Empire Keeps Getting Gayer — But Pop Stars Always Have Been Queer


The hit show challenges hip-hop's gay haters, but pop stars are actually revered for being gay, bisexual, or androgynous.


There are many reasons why LGBT fans are among the 14 million viewers who tune in each week to Fox's smash hit series Empire.

The juicy, sexy saga of a family hip-hop music empire stars the spectacular Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, the ex-con hell on wheels (and stiletto heels) matriarch, who walks off with every episode tucked neatly in her leopard print handbag.

The most sympathetic character is the sensitive, talented, gay singer-songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who's overcoming the homophobic disdain of his music magnate father Lucious (Terrence Howard) to make it on his own.

His two brothers, who he's battling for ultimate control of the family empire, are the cocky, aspiring hip-hop star Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), and the hunky, business-minded Andre (Trai Byers), both of whom frequently bare their chiseled chests.

Inventing a show that's catnip for gay viewers seems to have been a no-brainer for its gay creator Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels' The Butler), Danny Strong (Game Change, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2), and executive producer Ilene Chaiken (who created The L Word).

Speaking of the L word, a recent Empire episode revealed Hakeem's Rihanna-esque girlfriend sucking face with her hot model girlfriend. The show just keeps getting gayer -- and hotter.

Empire is clearly battling some of the entrenched homophobia in the world of rap and hip-hop music. (See recent quotes from Azealia Banks -- or better yet, don't.) With its massive audience and popularity, the show is certain to change some hearts and minds.

Yet while some people were surprised to see openly gay singer Sam Smith sweep Sunday's Grammy Awards, pop music is the only arena in which stars are not only accepted but revered for being gay, bisexual, or androgynous.

Whether it's the sultry androgyny of Elvis Presley, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, and Prince or the flamboyant stage personas of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Elton John, the greatest male pop stars have long combined the sexual power of both genders. And then there's George Michael, Ricky Martin, Adam Lambert ... Shall we go on?

Whether or not the performers publicly announce they're not exclusively straight, it's been clear for many years that no one wants a pop star who looks and acts like Clint Eastwood.

The most powerful pop divas also combine masculine energy with feminine sexuality. There's Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Janis Joplin, Bette Midler, Cher -- the tradition follows a steadily androgynous lineage through Madonna, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, Pink, and Lady Gaga.

While young people continue to be bullied in school hallways for being gay, lesbian, or simply androgynous, millions of people fill concert arenas to worship pop stars for having those very same qualities.

When Empire'sCookie discovers that a video of her pop star protege making out with her girlfriend has gone viral, she fires back, "I don't judge, but you's a freak. That's a good thing. We can sell that."

True that, Cookie. True that.

Check out the close-up on Empire's gay character Jamal Lyon, and actor Jussie Smollett here:

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Adam Sandel