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As one of the only openly gay black male characters on television, Jussie Smollett has a very large platform. The character he portrays on TV has become an important symbol in the LGBTQ community. He's in the lives and living rooms of millions who'd otherwise not see the stories of a black gay man.
So, it makes sense that an outpouring of heartbreak and fear emerged after Smollett's alleged assault in Chicago. However, as more evidence emerges, and he is now the suspect, that heartbreak and anger has become centered on him.
Because the fact is this real-life plot twist now threatens to further endanger some of the most vulnerable populations in the country. And a real fear has emerged among black LGBTQ+ people that we now won't be believed as victims in situations fueled by hate.
For five years, Jussie Smollett has played the loveable and crush-worthy character of Jamal Lyon on the Fox series Empire. We've been through a lot with Jamal. We remember when Jamal's father and family patriarch, Lucious Lyon, attacked him as a child out of fears the boy was gay. We remember every time he shared a touching scene with his larger-than-life mother, Cookie Lyon. We cheered when he came out to the world; we prayed when he was shot and we're so proud that he's now in love and thriving.
Through this character, we've come to fall in love with the man behind him as well, Jussie Smollett. Jussie has always boldly clapped back at the hateful rhetoric of the current president. We've seen the soft and fun side of him talking about hooking up with a fan from his Instagram DMs on a late night Bravo TV talk show.
When reports came out that Jussie had been attacked by MAGA supporters it felt personal. Someone who looks like and identifies like me was brutally attacked in a major city -- with a noose, racist expletives, and bleach. This felt too close to home. If this could happen in a major city, it could happen anywhere.
Celebrities, nonprofits, elected officials, and others rallied behind him. Many of us felt this was clearly an attack motivated by race and sexuality.
Data shows that reported hate attacks on marginalized communities have risen with Donald Trump as president. There have been attacks on our youth, attacks on people of faith, and attacks on LGBTQ+ people -- especially black LGBTQ+ people and especially black trans women. And while we were alarmed and heartbroken by Jussie's reported attack, we weren't surprised.
The real surprise was police finding out that Jussie may have orchestrated the whole thing -- something that truly is a statistical anomaly.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, hate crimes have increased every year for the last three years. The most recent FBI hate crimes report identified a 17 percent increase in bias-based crimes in 2017. Over 17 percent of the reported hate crimes were based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Almost 50 percent of the reported hate crimes were based on the victim's race.
The Anti-Violence Project reports there was a record high of 52 anti-LGBTQ murders in 2017 in the United States. Over 70 percent of the murders reported were people of color.
Just five days before Smollett's attack, Candice Elease Pinky, a black trans woman in Texas, was shot in broad daylight and left for dead. According to AVP, nearly half the victims of anti-LGBTQ murders in 2017 were trans women of color, meaning trans women of color are the most vulnerable population in America.
There lives are rarely discussed, especially with the vigor of Smollet's incident, and we may only hear less and less about this epidemic if he is found guilty.
Jussie Smollett will ultimately have to answer to a jury and whatever God he prays to. I'm not here to judge him, but there are real consequences for his lies and a very real danger of setting back the safety of all members of the LGBTQ+ community.
But what we can all learn from all of this, and we must focus on, this is that there are real people who are being murdered and attacked for being LGBTQ and black. It's up to us to uplift their memories, protect the most vulnerable, and make sure this violence doesn't go unnoticed.
MALIK K. BROWN is a member of the National Board of Governors for the Human Rights Campaign. He's based in Atlanta.