In the Jussie Smollett case, we don’t know what’s true, but we know what’s real
Regardless of the shifting story around the actor’s claims, violence against the black LGBTQ community is constant and horrifying
At this point, it’s impossible to say with any certainty what actually happened in the case of Jussie Smollett. Since the Empire actor garnered widespread sympathy and support after claiming to be the victim of a racist and anti-gay attack in Chicago last month, plot twists have come fast and furious. Two brothers questioned by police are reportedly claiming Smollett paid them to stage the attack.
Smollett had denounced suggestions that he’s lying. The Cook County state’s attorney is familiar with potential witnesses and has recused herself from the investigation. Early Thursday, the Chicago Police Department announced that Smollett had been arrested after being charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report.
But activists and experts say that regardless of how this case ultimately ends, violence against the LGBTQ community, especially the black LGBTQ community, is real. That confluence of vulnerabilities is the backdrop against which the Smollett case is playing out.
“It took for the Jussie Smollett situation to occur for people to finally start to listen to black queer people who have been saying forever these are things that happen in our communities,” says George M. Johnson, a Brooklyn, New York-based writer and LGBTQ activist.
“I want people to stop living in this vacuum of the issue. And I also want people to stop acting like, should the Jussie Smollett situation turn out that it’s a scheme or a hoax, oh, that sets us back 50 years. That doesn’t set us back at all. People weren’t believing us before this anyway, right?”
This community has yet to have its own #MeToo revolution.
A study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which advocates for LGBTQ communities, found a “crisis of fatal violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities” and that people of color are disproportionately victimized. For instance, of the 36 “hate violence-related homicides” of LGBTQ and HIV-affected people that the organization documented in 2017, 75 percent of the victims were people of color.
That violence represents a particular type of walking around vulnerability for black LGBTQ people, who are not simply navigating the myriad oppressions of white society. “I live in Flatbush, Brooklyn,” Johnson said. “A lot of times, I don’t run into the issues with white people over my race as much as I may run into the issues of black people over my sexuality and my expression of that.”
That’s the problem with making celebrities symbols of grassroots problems. “They’re just a part of our community and basically it’s the same thing that happens to us daily can also happen to them,” Johnson says. “But that doesn’t make them the face of the truth.”
Amber Jamilla Musser, an associate professor at George Washington University, teaches race, feminist and queer theory and says the Smollett case has activated a sense of community violation. “For so often, the violence occurred and there was never any recourse,” Musser says. Recently, increased attention has centered on crimes against gender non-conforming members of the LGBT community, particularly transgender women of color.
Of the 26 transgender women killed in 2018, 82 percent were women of color. Nearly two dozen or more transgender women have been killed each year since 2015, a number that is consistent, and hugely out of proportion to their numbers in the population, says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project.
“This case is picking up on some of that even though Smollett himself is not necessarily gender non-conforming,” Musser says. “Not that being openly gay and black is a privileged position. But it is more privileged than, say, being a trans woman of color who’s a sex worker. In a lot of ways, the idea that Smollett’s privilege, limited though it is in some spheres, is not able to guard against [potential attack] further triggers a community that’s aware of and attentive to the different facets of its vulnerability. It widens the idea of the potential scope for violence.”
An added nuance in the Smollett case is that these communities have always grappled with police forces that are often racist and have a long history of anti-LGBT sentiment, Musser says.
A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center on violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people notes that they struggle to trust law enforcement, which is typically socially conservative and has little experience with transgender people.
In an interview about the Smollett case, author and Chicago community organizer Charlene Carruthers points out on Out.com that the Chicago Police Department is operating under a consent decree, which mandates federal oversight and reform after a pattern of abuse, and that the city settled a police “torture reparations” case in 2015.
“We know this goes beyond Chicago. Almost any city in this country, where there are black people, there’s a level of skepticism,” Carruthers said. With a story as visceral as the Smollett case, “you want to do something about it. Then, hearing conflicting accounts confuses people. People just want to know what happened and they want anybody, including Jussie, to actually be well if they experience something like this. … on one hand, we know we can’t trust CPD and, on the other hand, we’re receiving conflicting information about what happened or not.”
Regardless of how it turns out, Johnson hopes the Smollett case helps people “connect the dots” about abuse. “There’s a reason that your mother didn’t believe when your uncle was touching you. There’s a reason that nobody believes you said this pastor was doing things to you. There’s a reason that all of those things are connected to this type of story, right?”
His approach: Believe the victims until they give you a reason not to believe them. Because disbelief is a real killer. Because one lie doesn’t negate the true stories of the last 1,000 people, or those of the next 1,000. “Because the culture of abuse is built on the fact that they hope none of us believe the victim from the beginning,” which always makes it easier to tear apart their story.
If the evidence shows Smollett was lying, Johnson said, the actor will be have to be held accountable. But black history, gay history, American history has taught us, you also better question where that evidence is coming from.
“We wouldn’t have believed Martin Luther King Jr. if he said the FBI was trying to get him to commit suicide, or the Tuskegee experiment, and Henrietta Lacks’ cells being stolen and her family being robbed all these generations. Why is it when it’s a ridiculous truth that a black person is speaking they’re not believed, when all the truths with the way we’ve been abused in this country have been ridiculous?
“Connect the dots.”