Tyler Perry is riding high off of the success of his latest hit TV series, "The Haves And The Have Nots". The soap opera has been a home-run with Perry’s core audience, netting a total of 2 million viewers to become OWN’s highest-rated show to date.
Sticking to his usual formula of mass stereotyping, Perry covers all of his bases. Bourgie Black folk? Check. Hardworking, southern church woman? Check. Privileged Whites? You got it. (There’s even an Hispanic maid.) But this time, there's one group Perry threw into the mix that I never thought he'd give the time of day to: gay men. Aside from longstanding rumors about Perry’s own sexual preference, it’s surprising that he would address homosexuality at all, considering his fan base is predominantly Black Christian women.
In "The Haves And The Have Nots," Perry doesn’t just address it, he goes there. His character, Jeffery, is a gay Black man who comes from a very wealthy family and is also trapped in the closet, R. Kelly-style. While being in the closet is a very real experience for many same-gender-loving people, particularly Black men, it didn’t quite sit well with me upon first watching the show, because I suspected Perry would more than likely take the opportunity to do what he does best: drench his character in so many stereotypes that it would turn into a television hate-fest. And that it did.
Despite being an educated, 20-something psychologist who comes from privilege and class, Jeffery is, at the very core, a self-loathing homosexual who lusts after his friend and client, Wyatt. Rather than doing what he’s hired to do, which is counsel Wyatt through his rehabilitation, Jeffery begins to develop a rather creepy obsession with Wyatt. First. it starts with the biting of the lips behind Wyatt’s back, next he’s inappropriately touching Wyatt and giving him a friendship bracelet. In one scene (which absolutely drove me insane) Jeffery sneaks into Wyatt’s bed while he’s sleeping, stares at him for a few seconds, then crawls out and goes back to sleep on the couch.
For one, Tyler writes this Jeffery character as if he’s some sexual demon, just waiting for the right opportunity to take out his burning desires on this young, attractive and presumably straight White man. Not only does Tyler perpetuate the misguided idea that gay and bisexual men are hypersexual beings, but he foolishly insinuates that if you’re gay and in the closet that you’re some type of savage or threat to one’s heterosexuality. Living in society’s figurative closet is far more complex than simply wanting to act out your carnal desires. Yes, some men who are in denial about their sexuality tend to act out in very unhealthy ways, but that’s only telling part of the story. For many, being in the closet doesn’t mean that they’re struggling with their identity, but more so struggling to share that identity with the world. Many self-identifying queer men are quite comfortable in their skin and are in very normal (and mutual) relationships – not trying to turn out a straight man like some horny teenager.
But Tyler doesn’t stop there. When Jeffery’s feelings aren’t reciprocated and Wyatt begins dating a woman, Jeffery turns very sadistic. Perry makes Jeffery the classic villain who seeks out revenge and sabotages Wyatt’s relationship, because if he can’t have him, no one can.
It’s really disappointing that with Tyler’s first-ever gay character, he would choose to be so irresponsible with the images he is projecting to his viewers.One of the most erroneous perceptions of men who are attracted to other men is that they have built-up anger and sexual impulses, and therefore, act out in very perverted ways. Taking into account that most of Perry’s audiences are older religious Black women who may already view homosexuality as a cardinal sin, it’s a very dangerous line to walk on when you think about the messages he’s recklessly promoting.
But it’s not surprising that Tyler would be so thoughtless in his characterization of Black gay men, considering his career reputation for villainizing Black women, often punishing his characters for being Black and successful, and his knack for exclusively uplifting working class people as the ideal, as if one has to sell one’s soul for an education and a six-figure job. Like his characterization of Black women, Tyler uses fear-mongering to keep alive the belief that Black gay men do not love themselves and are out to seduce every man they possibly can to satisfy their erotic desires.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Perry pulls the classic “Blacks are categorically homophobic” card when Jeffery’s mom gives him a very harsh "sissy boy" speech about what it means to be a man and pressures him to find a girl, any girl, to have by his side for when his father runs for local office. “Listen, boy. I will not tolerate this. Get yourself together,” she admonishes him. “We are depending on you not to embarrass us and to show up and be the man that we raised.” His mom’s militant response causes him to offer Tika Sumpter’s character, Candace, money to pretend to be his girlfriend — not to mention Candace practically bullies him into admitting he’s gay.
You’d think Perry would show a little more sensitivity to Jeffery, considering, he too, knows what it feels like to be yanked out of the closet. Earlier this year a man named Walter Lee Hampton II posted a YouTube video alleging that he knew Tyler many years ago when he was an out, gay man who frequently socialized with his circle of gay friends in Atlanta, prior to becoming the famous filmmaker he is today. Hampton also claims Perry said that he would have to keep his sexuality in the dark for fear of losing his very staunch religious supporters. But that’s another story.
Regardless of how Perry may personally feel about homosexuality, it’s important for him, as a storyteller and leader in the arts, to handle the subject with care. Don’t let this country’s marriage equality movement fool you. Being gay (and Black) in America is not an easy road to embark on. Many are still emasculated and humiliated by society’s homophobia and hypermasculinity — sometimes by their own loved ones — and by simply reiterating these experiences without any substantial solution or takeaways, Perry’s only adding fuel to fire.
I’d love to give Perry the benefit of the doubt that he’ll eventually use Jeffery’s storyline to advocate for acceptance and understanding, but his track record shows that progression isn’t exactly his MO. If it were up to Perry, Blacks would never make it out of the lower-middle class, and judging from "The Haves and The Have Nots," gays would most certainly never make it out of the closet. Unless, of course, they’re dragged out.
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a freelance writer in New York City and a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University Journalism School. He’s also a movie and television writer for XXLmag.com. Read more of his work on his website, MrGerrenalist.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MrGerrenalist.