Jussie Smollett, one of the stars of the Fox television show Empire, was attacked in Chicago early Tuesday morning by two people who yelled racist and homophobic epithets and tied a noose around his neck.
It's rumored that during the attack, one assailant screamed, “This is a MAGA country” and yelled: “Aren’t you that faggot Empire (anti-black slur)?” The Chicago Police Department and FBI are now conducting an investigation into whether this incident was a hate crime, however we as Black queer people know the truth: It was.
We know this because everyday our multiple marginalized identities increase our chances of facing racist, homophobic vitriol — and this fact has only intensified under the Trump administration with their dog whistle politics. So as we wait to see if justice is served for Smollett, we as Black queer people wait to see if America will finally see our lives as worth protecting.
Because history has rarely been on the side of Black queer folk.
Several celebrities are speaking out about Smollett’s attack. People like Viola Davis, Ava Duvernay, and Janet Mock, among others, have tweeted messages in solidarity and pushing for calling the attack a hate crime. Many politicians, including Senator Cory Booker and presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris, are calling on Congress to pass their joint Anti-Lynching Bill designating lynching as a federal hate crime. However, historically black queer men’s experiences are rarely counted as such because our being black and queer often gets ignored.
In November 2018, in an op-ed for Slate, I tackled the issue of hate crimes legislation and how we view hate and identity in light of the Shepard-Byrd Act’s 10th anniversary. “But that call [to action] rarely, if ever, considered the intersectional nature of identity, the fact that some of us are black and queer. And that oversight has profound consequences for people like me.” Once again, I am reminded of the violent blows that may be placed onto my body for living as an openly Black gay man.
Of the total number of homicides against LGBTQ people in 2017, 60 percent were Black while 23 percent of victims were white, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. And the prior year was the deadliest year ever for LGBTQ people, noting that out of the 28 reported hate violence homicides, apart from the tragedy at Pulse, 79 percent were people of color.
But we don’t have to look to studies to observe how society renders Black queer men as useless. Just last month in Buzzfeed, writer George Johnson discussed the wealth, class, and privilege of Democratic donor Ed Buck and the two Black queer men found dead in his home — Gemmel Moore in 2017 and Timothy Dean in 2019. A lawyer representing Buck told reporters that his client was innocent and then victim-blamed Moore and Dean.
"This is a situation where Mr. Buck has had longtime friends who, unfortunately, do not handle their life well,” he said. It was a similar story to the one told when Moore was first found dead in Buck’s home in July 2017. Buck has yet to be charged for either death.
And even if survivors of this violence that has made recent headlines were primarily poor — like Moore was — Smollett’s attacks show us that class won’t save us either. Because if a famous Black queer man like him can be attacked by two white supremacist assailants, what does this mean for those with minimal support and access to resources?
Make no mistake: wealth does not stop forms of institutional violence — racist, homophobic, or otherwise. Being thrust into the limelight does not stop the intersection of marginalized identities, particularly given a hostile climate which devalues Black queer lives. Contrary to popular belief, visibility does not protect us and may exacerbate harm, not curtail it.
Nonetheless, for Black queer people who are often viewed as more readily disposable (e.g. people who are poor, drug users, sex workers, or otherwise systematically marginalized), it is hard not to believe that the violence we face will be imminent.
Smollett has rightfully received an outpouring of support from so many around the world but if his celebrity didn’t protect him, then none of us are safe from racist individuals and institutional violence. And while it does appear the police and prosecutors could bring hate crime charges, this won’t stop the larger systems of violence faced every day.
What happened to Smollett was an attempted modern day lynching and it’s time for America to look deep within its past and reconcile the harm it has caused — and will no doubt continue to cause — Black queer people, who live at the intersection of blackness and queerness every day.
Because if he isn’t safe, none of us are.
PRESTON MITCHUM is a black queer writer, activist, and legal/policy analyst. He is on the board of directors of the Collective Action for Safe Spaces and resides in Washington, D.C. Find out more at prestonmitchum.com.