There’s just so much to unpack I don’t even know where to begin, but I had the hardest time sleeping Saturday night.
That was after the news broke about Jussie Smollett potentially orchestrating his own attack—an attack allegedly perpetrated by two men in ski masks who shouted racial and homophobic slurs at him, tied a rope around his neck, poured bleach on him, and yelled “MAGA country!”
An attack that had made national headlines, had elicited both sympathy and skepticism, and seemed to bring to a head a nexus of socio-politictal conflicts with which America has been publicly grappling with renewed vigor since the election of Donald J. Trump: There was the racist angle, the noose and all its history of racial terrorism, the homophobic angle. And tying it all together—or as Smollett put it in his interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, “the cherry on top of some racist sundae”—the MAGA connection.
I have been following this story for weeks because I felt it was important, and because it struck a personal chord. The day after the initial reports of the Smollett incident, feeling the need to do something besides report on the news, I reached out to a number of other black queer folks to see if they’d be interested in being a part of a roundtable discussion about the violence facing our intersectional communities. I was met with resounding yes after resounding yes and once trips were postponed and meetings rescheduled, we were able to pull together this panel in a matter of days.
Among the topics discussed was this climate wherein victims are not believed and are further victimized in the court of public opinion. That Smollett was immediately put on trial made perfect sense to me since those who doubted him were probably the same ones who doubted Dr. Blasey Ford, or the (at least) 19 women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct. And besides, as one of the panelists, Guy Anthony, observed, “Who’s ever believed the black man anyway?”
With these and other victims, their defenders always ask, Why would anyone put themselves through this? The invasion of privacy, the interrogation of your morality and your motives—the stakes are far too high to fabricate a story of assault. More than anything, it just strikes me as something incredibly stupid, if not mentally unstable, to do. These kinds of shenanigans are best left to Empire or Scandal storylines, not real life. Because real life has consequences. It was these possible consequences that kept me awake over the weekend.
“I’m an advocate,” Smollett told Roberts. “I respect too much the people—who I am now one of those people—who have been attacked in any way. You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this.”
We’re living in an age where concessions need to be made for “fake news” and “alternative facts,” where truth is whatever you want it to be, where entire swathes of people subscribe to one reality over another. In the worst case scenario—if Smollett did indeed play a hand in his own hate crime, as implausible or nonsensical as it seems—then where does that leave future victims of assault?
The fact that the lives of black, brown, queer, and gender non-conforming people are constantly put at risk—and that our rights are constantly being challenged—was given credence by such a public example of these very real threats. In 2017, the National Anti-Violence Project reported an 86% increase in anti-LGBTQ homicides from the previous year, the majority of them were people of color, while trans women of color were disproportionally affected. Those are just the homicides that are reported—who knows how many queer people actually lose their lives but remain anonymous, uncared for, or unclaimed.
Sure, people who blame and doubt victims are probably already too far gone to be persuaded one way or the other, but what of the institutions tasked with aiding victims? The Chicago Police Department and many other police departments throughout the country certainly don’t have sterling records when dealing with victims of hate crimes or hate violence, and all these powers of authority need is a prominent example to justify their continued biases, which could only further sour the relationships they have with queer people and people of color, especially.
Then there’s the tide turning among those in these very communities, as some seem to take a morbid pleasure at being “right” about something to which they still have no clear answers, while others are quick to denounce Smollett as a liar, or worse. I’m more hesitant. Not only because I don’t yet know the whole truth, though I am holding out hope, but I still want to believe someone when they say they were attacked because as a black queer man in America, it is a reality with which I am forced to live everyday. Still, I can’t help but feel…not betrayed, that’s not the word. Maybe naïve…and more than a little disillusioned. Not by Smollett himself, but the circumstances surrounding him.
Was I wrong to believe Smollett and to take affront at others who suggested he might have been lying or not being fully truthful? Will this affect my ability or willingness to believe victims moving forward? Should I not have tried to galvanize the attention being paid to Smollett’s story to bring attention to the plights of others who lacked his notoriety? All I know is as more and more details emerge, it’s getting harder and harder to know what or who is right and wrong. But however this ends, someone will have to face a serious reckoning.
It’s just not clear who that may be, but more than anything, I want to know the truth so I can at least get a good night’s sleep again.