Culture & Conversation Sexuality

You Don’t Have to Believe Jussie Smollett. But Ask Yourself Why You Don’t.

Kieran Scarlett

So predictable to suspect Black queer men for "provoking" violence against them. But here we are—with much of Twitter speculating he's lying about a hookup gone awry.

“Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act.”

I often think of this quote from the late Black queer writer and activist Joseph Beam. I have come to love my queerness and my Blackness. Together, not separate, neither wholly inextricable from my person. It is not the entirety of me, but it’s much of me.

I have thought constantly about that quote recently, when news broke earlier this week that Empire actor and singer Jussie Smollett was hospitalized in Chicago, reportedly after a brutal attack in Chicago by two white masked assailants.

Smollett, who plays a gay character on TV and identifies as a gay man in real life, claims that the assailants uttered racist and homophobic invectives, shouting “MAGA country!” while striking him in the face and fracturing one of his ribs. The attackers also allegedly placed a noose around Smollett’s neck and doused him with an unknown chemical (officers later reported that they smelled bleach on Smollett’s clothing). Smollett’s music manager, Brandon Z. Moore, was reportedly on the phone with Smollett at the time of the attack and corroborates the actor’s account that the men were shouting racist and homophobic slurs.

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Even fame, wealth, and success are not a shield. Bigots wants to silence us, make us shrink in fear, or literally snuff us out of existence. This incident throws into sharp and sad relief that living openly as a Black queer person remains a revolutionary act—and how hard it is for many Americans to empathize with a Black gay man or to acknowledge that hate crimes are not aberrations. They are not rare or exceptional events, but part of this country’s social fabric.

Soon after the media reports begin, insinuations that Smollett was lying came hard and fast. Why was he out on the street in the early a.m.? Clearly, his questioners believe that little good or honest happens after midnight, though many of them have had the munchies. Right-wing conspiracy theorists called the attack as “another phony hate crime,” according to AlterNet. Credible media outlets are using speculative language like “possible hate crime.”  Yes, credible media outlets are professionally bound to use words like “allegedly” when describing crimes, but those tentative references to “possible hate crimes” are far more frequent, far more insidious, and deeply dangerous when the victim is queer.

The day after the attack, several media outlets also (for reasons I cannot deduce) felt it necessary to report that police had yet to find surveillance footage of the attack or any possible suspects, fueling rumors that Smollett was not truthful about the incident. This, despite the fact that the investigation is still ongoing and the police did find surveillance video of possible suspects later that same day. There were no recorded signs of any interaction with Smollett, though cameras can’t catch everything.

Queer men especially are used to speculation that violence or threats against us somehow have to do with sex. It had to have been a hookup or sex play that went terribly wrong. Usually, it’s our fault for “inappropriately” soliciting sex from cishet men (as some have baselessly speculated about Smollett). Of course, in this toxic patriarchal society, men often respond to real or imagined solicitation by lashing out with anger. A simple “No, thank you” would do.  

Never mind that Smollett received threatening hate mail filled with racist and homophobic rhetoric on the set of Empire a week before the attack. Or that marginalized communities have historically been targets of violence in America. Or that since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, there has been a noted uptick in hate crimes. Racially motivated hate crimes have risen by about 15 percent and hate crimes based on sexual orientation have risen by nearly 20 percent, according to data released by the FBI. Yet, people still question whether white men commit premeditated or impulsive hate crimes against LGBTQ folks or people of color. Smollett is just blaming “MAGA rednecks,”or so the story goes.

These theories that Smollett is making up the attack—because he needs more attention than a hit show and music can give him, apparently—is culturally sanctioned gaslighting. What a regrettably predictable response to any marginalized person’s accounts of bigotry or bias: It must be exaggerated or imagined.

I can relate to how incidents of aggression or violence are immediately followed by questions of what queer men were doing to court trouble. As a 14-year-old high-school freshman almost 20 years ago, I was targeted by an older boy who didn’t like the way I looked at him in the locker room. His anger and fear took the form of shouted invectives in the locker room after gym class and harassment that sometimes became physical shoving on our shared bus route. It continued for weeks before he moved onto a smaller, weaker target after I finally told him to leave me alone (using less polite language).

Then just last year, I went clothes shopping with my roommate at a local store and was nearly physically attacked by a man who insisted (incorrectly) that I had been following him through the aisles and “checking him out.” He, too, shouted several racist and homophobic epithets at me. The store employees did little to handle the situation; one asked me if I was indeed following him before addressing the man who attempted to push me into a nearby clothing rack.

It’s also worth mentioning that the shopping incident happened in the “liberal” city of Los Angeles, dispelling the myth that the danger of being Black and queer is any less in cosmopolitan centers than it is in more rural or suburban areas. Hate crimes in the country’s largest cities increased for the fifth consecutive year in 2018, indicating a problem possibly exacerbated by the Trump administration, but that existed before his presidency. In Los Angeles specifically, hate crimes rose by 13 percent from 2017 to 2018, with most of those crimes being committed against members of the LGBTQ community, Black people, and Jewish people. This despite more media representation and perceived acceptance of both Black and queer faces and voices.

Hypervisibility doesn’t make Black queer people any safer. Being in a large city center doesn’t make Black queer people any safer. Jussie Smollett being a wealthy, attractive, talented famous actor in a big city doesn’t make him less vulnerable. Being Black and queer—just existing—remains a revolutionary act.

Smollett has owned his Blackness and his queerness since Empire thrust him into the spotlight. And whether you believe his story—and I do—the avalanche of speculation that he’s lying and the refusal to understand those intertwined identities are an attack on both of those identities. While discussing the attack on a panel on Wendy Williams’ talk show, radio host Rickey Smiley went to great lengths to condemn white supremacy, but made no mention about the obvious homophobia Smollett reported as part of the attack. Comedians Ellen DeGeneres and Kevin Hart both separately offered words of support for Smollett on social media, neither specifically calling out racism nor homophobia. All the more galling in this case was that Hart had nothing more to say, after the recent media maelstrom regarding his homophobic tweets about inflicting violence on his son if his child were gay. I didn’t expect much from DeGeneres either, after she conducted an unchallenging interview with Hart and forgave him for remarks against a community she’s not even a part of—queer Black men. This is not OK.

I understand the feelings behind the flattening of the nuances. We want to make things uncomplicated. But this is an important and necessary moment to talk about intersecting systems of oppression. The oppression Black members of the LGBTQ community face—whether it’s homophobia from the Black community, racism from the white LGBTQ community, or a combination from white and other people outside of both these communities—is unique.

I think about the fear I felt in the store last year when a white man larger than me was incensed by my Black queerness. It didn’t feel entirely dissimilar to the fear I felt as a teenager when an older boy made me the target of his fear-based homophobia and racism. To be Black and queer remains a revolutionary act due to how unsafe it often is—and how comfortable others are with us Black queer folk being unsafe.

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