Ilene Chaiken gets recognized by GLSEN and talks representation on “Empire”

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Last night Ilene Chaiken was in attendance at the GLSEN Respect Awards in New York City where she received an award for her work providing LGBT young people with role models in her work. The award was presented by out actor/singer/activist Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal on Empire.

2016 GLSEN Respect AwardsPhoto by Donna Ward/WireImage

Also honored besides Chaiken in last night’s event were Good Morning America’s host George Stephanopoulos and his wife, Ali Wentworth, with the award presented by out journalist and GMA co-host, Robin Roberts.

Robin Roberts with partner Amber LaignGLSEN Respect Awards - Arrivals  Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for GLSEN Respect Awards

Before the event, Chaiken told AfterEllen that being recognized by GLSEN means a great deal to her.

“I’ve been a GLSEN supporter and admirer for years,” she said via phone. “Working with our youth, where we still have such a lot of work to do to make the world safe, it is the most gratifying of all the things that we do. I’m just thrilled to be in a position where we can do something to support the organization and incredibly flattered that they thought I was worthy of being honored.”

Speaking of not only the younger audience but the adult viewers of Empire, having LGBT characters is a very good thing but the creative choices can also come under scrutiny when storylines kill off a lesbian character (like Marisa Tomei’s Mimi) or Smollett’s established-as-gay character sleeps with a woman (played by Alicia Keys). Chaiken told us she and her fellow Empire writers do not take these decisions lightly.

“The answer is I’m very, very mindful, as are my fellow writers of representation,” she said. “We are so inclusive in our representation that it frees us to tell the stories we want to tell. This is something I encountered on The L Word and, honestly, I even encountered it as a Jewish person telling stories about Jewish characters. People come to us and they say ‘You can’t say that about our people!’ They say ‘We don’t want the world to look at us that way.’ And we, as writers, say ‘But of course you do because until we can tell the same stories about us and our people as we can about every non-gay, non-black, non-Jewish characters, then we’re not equal. If you only want us to only be able to kill and corrupt straight white men then straight white men are going to get all the good stories.”

GLSEN Respect Awards - InsidePhoto by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for GLSEN Respect Awards

“I don’t entirely disagree with the premise of the kill-the-lesbians trope,” Ilene continued. “I think there are a lot of straight white men running TV shows who want to tell us a shocking story and say, ‘Well, we need to kill a character now. Who can we afford to lose? Oh! The lesbian!’  I believe that there is some legitimacy to that but I would never do it in that way. I’m of a different orientation than that.”

Chaiken also stressed that even having a homophobic character like Lucious (Terrence Howard) can be hard at times, especially when you have a scene where that character says to his out, gay son, “And the day you die from AIDS, I’m gonna celebrate.”

Chaiken said of the crafting of that scene, “We didn’t want to tell a sanitized story about Lucious Lyon, one of the worst homophobes on TV since Archie Bunker, in one season suddenly becoming an all-embracing loving PFLAG parent. We’ve seen how dark Lucious is in so many ways [and] how inconsistent and changeable he can be and his homophobia is real and, yes, he has made a big evolution with regard to Jamal but it doesn’t mean he’s not still homophobic and it’s going to come out it’s going to come out especially when he’s threatened and in that moment he was threatened.”

At Friday’s For Your Consideration event for the show on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, executive producer/director Sanaa Hamri said the goal is to tell the same stories for all characters without sexuality dictating where writers can and cannot go.

“I want everybody to have the equal opportunity,” she said. “We’re going to get married, we’re going to get killed, we’re going get hitched, we’re going to party, we’re going to do what everybody else is doing and, to me, that’s what the show is about and that’s why I’m very passionate about it.”

Ilene Chaiken and Sanaa HamriSK1_9721_hires2photo by Scott Kirkland/FOX

As for the killing off of the Mimi character, Hamri also said, “a lot of people are getting killed off our show and it’s really not about their sexual orientation. I really can speak for us as a team that that has nothing to do with anything but character in what they’re doing with the plots. And Lucious? He is dangerous! I wouldn’t want to talk to him!”

And while bisexual character Tiana didn’t see any girl-on-girl action in the second season, actress/singer Serayah McNeil said her own backstory was that Tiana may have been more focused on her career but added, “Next season, I’m curious to see where she and Hakeem are going to go and if there’s going to be a pick up with the blonde, tall girlfriend. We don’t know with Tiana!”

SK1_9427_hires2photo by Scott Kirkland/FOX

McNeil did say that once it came out in the first season that Tiana was bi, she heard nothing but positivity from the fans via social media.

“It was such a big reveal!” she said. “People were shocked and they had no idea but so much support! I didn’t get any bad reactions or comments so that was good. My family was like ‘That was really believable!’

However, if McNeil has something to say about the casting of a future female love interest, she had one hot suggestion when asked. “Seriously right now? Ruby Rose! She’s good.”

We made sure to let Chaiken know McNeil’s suggestion to which the showrunner replied, “I love it! We’re going to go there,” she said. “I hadn’t heard that yet but I’m all in for that.”

Empire returns for season three this fall on Fox. For more on GLSEN, visit the website.

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