On the latest season of Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, which airs its third-season finale tonight, one of its stars, Nikki Mudarris, is in a love triangle involving a man, Safaree (a.k.a. Nicki Minaj’s ex), and a woman, Rosa Acosta. While much of the conversation around this story line focused on whether Nikki was faking a lesbian relationship as a stunt for attention, it distracted from a more notable undercurrent on the show: This was just one of many instances of the Love & Hip Hop franchise exploring relationships that include LGBTQ people. For every supposedly fake bisexual woman, there are plenty of real members of the black LGBTQ community who have had their experiences chronicled on the Love & Hip Hop franchise.
While the docu-soap franchise — which follows the lives of young hip-hop musicians in New York, Hollywood, and Atlanta — isn’t an after-school special by any stretch of the imagination, it stages real and substantive conversations around gender and sexuality in ways the rest of TV hasn’t yet, particularly when it comes to racial minorities. Recently, reality television has begun to pick up the slack with shows like The Prancing Elites, and the Oxygen series featuring trans models, Strut. The Love & Hip Hop franchise is perhaps the most outwardly tacky, as it falls into the brand of reality TV that thrives on conflict, often in its most vicious forms. Take the relationship between rapper Miles Brock and producer Milan Christopher on the last season of Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, which focused on Miles’s reluctance to come out to his ex-girlfriend and family. While the story line brought up controversial tropes like the widely debunked “down low” phenomenon — which posits that some black men who are trapped in the closet date both men and women, therefore spreading HIV/AIDS — it also left a lasting impression: There are still black men out there like Miles who struggle with their sexuality, particularly in hip-hop. The attention Miles and Milan’s relationship gained in the press eventually led to the VH1 special Out in Hip Hop, a forum in which cast members, religious leaders, artists, and journalists (including myself) had a dialogue about homophobia in the industry.
The most recent season of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta explored gender identity in two narratives that were most fascinating because of how honestly they exposed prejudices. Mimi Faust introduces her new beau Chris Gould to her best friend, Ariane Davis, who wrongly assumes that the new couple is in a lesbian relationship. Mimi explains that Chris is a transgender man: “I identify myself as a female. Chris identifies herself [sic] as male. So we are not in a lesbian relationship.” Ariane, who is a lesbian herself, doesn’t understand, and asks Chris, “So you have an identity crisis?” Chris goes on to explain in the confessional, “Mentally and spiritually, I identify as male, just in a female vessel.” The conversation highlights the biases within the LGBTQ community itself, where being gay or lesbian doesn’t automatically mean you know everything about sex and gender.
Whereas Chris’s conversations about gender are largely cordial, D. Smith, a Grammy-award winning producer and trans woman, often found herself in contentious settings on Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta with co-stars Waka Flocka Flame and Scrappy. In an interview with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, Waka declared Caitlyn Jenner was “rebuking God” by being trans and alleged that “the devil” was playing tricks on her mind. (Following intense backlash, Waka “clarified” his comments on Twitter.) Scrappy, too, attacked trans women, writing on Instagram, “You a man with a penis with a wig on. I gotta check these motherf*****s’ baby pictures nowadays.” D. Smith confronted Scrappy, explaining that his social-media posts were transphobic; they ended their conversation in an uneasy detente. D. Smith has said that her participation on the show was an attempt to bring about awareness. “This is the demographic that people need to see the most,” she told the New York Post. “Fifteen years from now, some trans girl is going to have it so much easier than I did because I helped out.” (Smith has since said that she “barely made it through” the season and she wouldn’t be returning.)
Things didn’t go D. Smith’s way, but even these confrontations — which are often contrived by producers to bring about the conflict necessary to keep the melodrama going and fans tuned in — feel purposeful, and don’t let ignorant comments stand alone. While D. Smith may not have fully enlightened Scrappy or Waka, she likely impacted at least some of the minds of those watching at home. And more than anything, they feel like candid dialogues. It’s a stark contrast to Jenner’s E! docuseries, I Am Cait, where the artifice of staged conversations is more apparent.
Over the years, much of the conversation surrounding Love & Hip Hop has been relegated to whether or not the shows reinforce racial stereotypes. Mona Scott-Young, an executive producer of the franchise, defended the show from this line of criticism, noting: “The show was not created to represent all African-Americans. I think it’s clear that it’s these women’s stories. It’s set in a specific world and I don’t think that there’s anybody who’s navigated that world who would deny that these things happen.”
The same can be said of the LGBTQ people featured. Some narratives might feel uninspired — the questioning of Nikki’s bisexuality, the secrecy around Miles’s sexuality — but to Scott-Young’s point, these things do still happen. And what makes Love & Hip Hop’s dialogues so effective are that they work within the framework that made the franchise so popular to begin with: chaos. LGBTQ people of color are depicted as messy and complicated, progressive and ignorant — just like straight people. And in some ways, the faces of Love & Hip Hop are more representative of the LGBTQ community at large than what we typically see. A 2012 Gallup poll found that people of color self-identify as LGBTQ at a higher rate than white people, with black people self-identifying as LGBTQ more than anyone else. For all of the white faces typically associated with the LGBTQ community, D. Smith, Mimi Faust, Chris Gould, and yes, Nikki Mudarris, are more common than the media makes them out to be.