The Jussie Smollett attack, and the reality of being black and gay in America
We need to be talking about how we make our society open and how we develop a sense of tolerance and fairness for everyone to be who they are.Earl Fowlkes
For leading voices within the black LGBTQ community, Jussie Smollett’s attack feels far too familiar.
The “Empire” star – who identifies as gay and plays a gay character on the show – was the subject of a racist and homophobic attack in Chicago early Tuesday, in which two people are said to have shouted slurs and assaulted him before pouring a chemical substance on him and wrapping a rope around his neck.
No one has been arrested, and police continue to investigate. Authorities have released images of two persons of interest in the case.
“It’s just another f–king day in America,” “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels said on Instagram, a sentiment that many people in the community are forced to face on a day-to-day basis.
“Jussie (Smollett) is one of thousands of people who are victims of violence from homophobia or racism, or both, every year,” Earl Fowlkes, President and CEO of the Center for Black Equity, told the Daily News Wednesday.
The actor’s status as a public figure has catapulted the anger felt over the attack to a national level — though the sympathetic response and rallying cries of support are a luxury not always felt by members of the black LGBTQ community.
“My (initial) feeling was one of deep concern for him. What he experienced is a type of violence that is not uncommon. Because he has a platform and is a celebrity… it brings the type of violence that for so many is common and mundane to a sort of broader public recognition,” author and activist Darnell Moore said.
“And I wondered how many people have suffered in silence.”
Of all the anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2017, 56% of victims were black, while 71% were people of color, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. A 2014 survey by the Center for Black Equity, an organization working to improve the lives of black LGBTQ people globally, found that fewer than half its participants said they connected with both the African-American and LGBTQ community.
For Moore, the attack on Smollett served as a reminder that members of the marginalized group are living in a world that has yet to fully embrace them and their struggles, and allow them to “live freely and safely.”Chicago police release images of persons of interest in attack on ‘Empire’ star Jussie Smollett »
Fowlkes explained to The News that black LGBTQ people are not only facing discrimination from the greater public, but also within their own community.
“They live in fear in their homes because coming out in their family, and coming out in their communities, they could lose everything they had,” Fowlkes said.
“You have a target on your back and you don’t know where it’s going to come from. Is it gonna come from within your community or outside your community?” he added.
Smollett’s attack comes weeks after comedian Kevin Hart faced criticism over resurfaced comments in which he claimed that if he could prevent his son from being gay, he would. The instance shed light on the continued use of homophobia as the butt of the joke in the entertainment world.
“We can’t be out here joking about violence befalling assumed or fictionalized queer or trans people, and on the other hand when such violence happens, lament that it did,” Moore said. “Now’s the time to see a lot of our actions to be totally, totally reflective of the worries that we speak.”
Even beyond Hollywood, behavior previously limited to the confines of one’s own home has now found itself more comfortably in the public eye.
Hate crimes as a whole were on the rise for the third consecutive year in 2018, according to the F.B.I. Nearly three of five were motivated by race and ethnicity, while sexual orientation and religion were cited as the other two major motivators.
In Smollett’s attack, the suspects were said to have shouted, “This is MAGA country” as they carried out the assault.
“These are folk who screamed MAGA, so (Smollett’s attack) is emblematic of a moment that we’re in where from the White House, a president who has in so many ways given credence to people who might have otherwise practiced or exhibited a type of racial antagonism, racial violence, queer antagonism state at their dinner table are taking it to the streets,” Moore said.
Both Moore and Fowlkes told The News that while a resolution won’t come easily, progress shouldn’t only fall on the shoulders of the black community.
“Not just the black LGBTQ community need to have this discussion, but people of goodwill, black folks, white folks, Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders,” Fowlkes said. “We need to be talking about how we make our society open and how we develop a sense of tolerance and fairness for everyone to be who they are.”