Credit: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Opinion
5 min

Jussie Smollett’s story doesn’t mean we should ignore Black queer survivors

‘From now on, will innocent queer Black men be treated as liars when they come forward with their stories of survival?’

When I finally gained the courage 10 years ago to come out to my family and friends on my own terms, I felt liberated to share the story about how I discovered my queer identity — a story that, despite moments of beauty in coming to understand myself, has been filled with memories of pain.

My father knew I was queer before I could come out to him myself. When I was 14, living in the projects in the Bronx, he decided that I was too feminine for his taste: My voice was too high. I used my hands to express myself too much. I was too much of a “sissy” to call myself his son. He never gave me the opportunity to tell him I’m gay. Instead, he asked me, “You be on that faggot shit?” Anticipating a violent response, I replied “no.”

But the truth was too bright to hide with lies, so I told him that I am attracted to people for who they are, not their gender identities. That was still “too gay” for him. He was determined to fix me or murder me in the process. He once tried to physically assault me and my mother jumped to my defence. That night, he attempted to kick down my door to attack us both. I became afraid to trust men, and I internalized my father’s homophobia, hating myself for my identity.

When I later recounted this painful experience to friends and family, they wrinkled their noses at me in disbelief. This denial of my trauma isn’t at all a unique reaction for other Black queer people. My father was a notorious gangster who has robbed and committed unspeakable acts of violence against people — but my loved ones couldn’t fathom the thought of someone actually hating their child enough to want them dead. “Stop lying. He never threatened to kill you,” they said. “He was probably joking. No one murders their child because of their sexual preferences” — a statement undermined by the untimely deaths of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, a boy tortured and murdered by his mother and her boyfriend because they suspected him to be gay, and 14-year-old Giovanni Melton, shot dead by his father after an argument about his sexual orientation.

Hearing my loved ones invalidate my story felt like poisonous darts puncturing my heart one after another. I didn’t want my story to exist in a world where people roll their eyes in disbelief of my pain. I buried the truth, never speaking about it so that I’m not forced to persuade people to believe me.

Knowing how it feels to have my trauma invalidated is why I choose to believe all victims. And it’s why I chose to believe Jussie Smollett.

On Jan 29, TMZ reported that the Black gay Empire actor was violently assaulted, a hate crime on the basis of his race and sexual orientation. I’ve developed a certain numbness to these kinds of stories. It’s not unusual to hear about a cis-heterosexual person — or a group of cis-heterosexual people — having violently assaulted a queer Black man. A recent FBI report found that hate crimes increased by 17 percent in 2017. Nearly one-third of the victims were Black Americans, and 16 percent were targeted because of their sexual identity. In Canada, hate crimes targeting Black people make up 16 percent of all hate crimes in the country, and Black people are the largest target of race-based hate crimes. Hate crimes targeting LGBTQ2 people remain the most violent in Canada.

But now, police have charged Smollett with disorderly conduct, accusing him of falsifying a police report. While no allegations have been proven yet in court, police say Smollett staged the attack to further his career.

When the news of the attack broke, my stomach tightened at the thought of encountering someone hateful enough to beat me up, pour bleach on me, tie a noose around my neck and shout racist and homophobic slurs. I remember thinking that someone needed to be held accountable, immediately.

Anyone who isn’t Black and queer needed to be held accountable — because if one isn’t Black and queer then they can’t understand Black queer grief; if one doesn’t understand Black queer grief then they are complicit in our grief. Our grief is having our trauma reduced to jokes, like “If I had a gay son, I’d beat him straight or kick him out.” Our grief comes from people telling us how we — Black queer men — should behave in order to make the cis-heterosexual community comfortable. Our grief comes from not knowing who our attackers will be: will they be Black or white? Will they be straight or a secretly queer person who is determined to keep their true identities hidden? Will we be believed?

I understand Black queer grief. It’s why these recent allegations against Smollett have made me feel sick. If it is true, Smollett has given people who invalidated his story from the beginning “I told you so” rights. From now on, will innocent queer Black men be treated as liars when they come forward with their stories of survival?

To further complicate matters, Chicago police were also determined to treat Smollett as a suspect in his own case until he was proven innocent. From the start, Smollett faced skepticism over the attack, and in a matter of three weeks, he was arrested. Smollett had to fight to have his case corroborated — he wasn’t a victim but instead a person of interest. Meanwhile, the same police department, intent on unraveling Smollett’s story, was accused of covering up details of the death of a Black teenager, after a white officer shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.

The Smollett incident has helped create a new — and dangerous — dialogue about future Black queer suspects. Will authorities believe Black queer survivors when they come forward with allegations of assault? Will they feel comfortable to even come forward? Or will it be more fodder for homophobes, who will choose to lump all survivors together with Smollett?

I’m not saying that our identities were safe prior to the Smollett incident — they weren’t. But homophobes now have a pop-culture reference when they want to victim-blame or accuse us of lying when we come forward with our stories. Our fight just became a little more complicated. Thanks to Smollett we will be more likely to be treated as the first suspects of our own hate crimes — and that will surely bring forth even more violence against Black LGBTQ2 people.

In a previous piece I wrote, I explored the intersectionality of Black queer identities — and how vulnerable our super marginalized identities make us. Navigating life as a Black queer person means anticipating constant pain and disappointment, from our families, institutions, ourselves and our own communities: white people are white people, but cis-heterosexual Black men are the white people of Black people. In other words, white people have a history of demeaning and excluding communities for not adhering to their standards: not being white enough. Similarly, straight Black men demean and exclude those in their our own community who does not adhere to their standards: being straight.

Already, I see my queer counterparts pleading with the cis-heterosexual community, asking them to still believe victims. However, in a world where Ed Buck — a wealthy Democratic donor — can still walk free after two Black queer men — Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean — died under suspicious circumstances in his home, it’s safe to say that there’s no pleading with people who didn’t care about us in the first place.

Smollett is a gay Black man who knows that queer Black people are already born with two strikes against them. He is a gay Black man with a large platform. He is a gay Black man who is aware of our current political climate. If he did orchestrate his attack to use Black queer trauma to improve his career, he will have contributed to further endangering Black queer people. He will have contributed to our grief.