Actor Jussie Smollett has been at the forefront of the continued growth of Black LGBT representation in mainstream culture in recent years, through his portrayal of Jamal Lyon on “Empire,” a gay character who carries the trauma of abuse from school bullies and a homophobic father.
After confirming his sexual orientation on “Ellen” in 2015, he’s advocated for HIV awareness for years, and even pushed for an HIV-centric plot line on “Empire.” He’s also recently championed fundraising efforts to save Bennett College, one of only two women-only HBCUs in existence.
His example as an out, Black LGBT person portraying out LGBT people in popular culture is one among many, when in previous years he might have been seen as a token or a character actor.
“Moonlight,” for instance, centered a Black man’s coming-of-age struggles with sexuality and identity and won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017. “Pose,” which has picked up a host of Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice award nominations, offers a heartwarming glimpse into 1980s ball culture within Black and Latinx communities, and made TV history for having the largest cast of transgender series regulars. And, while reacting to her Grammy nod for Album of the Year, Janelle Monae said she created “Dirty Computer” as a young, Black and queer woman who wanted to celebrate her people.
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But while Smollett and others entertain the masses, their work matters particularly to Black LGBT people who seek sources of inspiration as they endure the everyday push and pull of multiple, concurrent forms of prejudice.
That’s why an attack on Smollett struck Black and LGBT people at a deep, visceral level — which had led to an outpouring of support from allies as well.
Just over a week ago, a letter addressed to “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett arrived at the Chicago studios where the show is filmed; pictures show that included a poorly-rendered sketch of a man hanging from a tree, along with a threat: “You will die Black f*g.”
Then (though law enforcement has yet to find a connection between the two incidents), on Tuesday morning, Smollett called police from a friend’s house shortly before 3 a.m., wearing a rope around his neck. He reportedly told them, with injuries on his face and around his neck, that two masked attackers approached him on a nearby street shouting epithets, hit him, doused him with bleach and put the rope around his neck. In a later interview with police, he confirmed news reports that they yelled “this is MAGA country” as they fled; his music manager, who says he was on the phone with Smollett at the time, confirmed to police that he heard the racial slurs.
Smollett has yet to make a public statement about his trauma, but the reported threats and the attack triggered the generational traumas of two historically oppressed groups – Black people and LGBT people — and demonstrated one way in which Black LGBT people live with both enduring legacies at the same time.
Take the LGBT community for example: The mainstream LGBT movement as we know it today sprang in part from the 1969 Stonewall Riots, where patrons of the gay bar, routinely targeted by discriminatory police raids, forcefully resisted the officers who kept violating one of their few safe spaces. Anti-gay hate crimes took center stage in 1998 after the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was lured out of a bar, tied to a fence and tortured to death by two men in Wyoming.
Same-sex sexual activity meant risking arrest and prosecution in several states, until the 2003 landmark ruling in Lawrence v. Texas made it legal nationwide. And while same-sex marriage became the law of the land in 2015, “bathroom bills” have now emerged to keep transgender people from using the restroom most appropriate for them, with one West Virginia principal recently suspended for harassing a trans student about it.
Black people’s experiences with state and interpersonal violence runs even deeper. Slave traders and owners ripped families apart, beat and sexually abused laborers into submission, and enforced the system through patrols and the threat of death. Even after slavery was abolished, widespread lynchings inflicted racial terror and white mobs destroyed Black businesses, all in an attempt to keep Black people on society’s lower rungs. “Sundown towns” under Jim Crow made traveling a fearful prospect for Black people, who faced police harassment, intimidation and violence if they were caught traversing past sunset. And that legacy persists today, with stop-and-frisks and police shootings disproportionately targeting Black people, per studies.
And while the Black and LGBT communities have distinct histories of trauma, it converges upon Black LGBT people, who must bear the weight of it all at the same time. Black LGBT people live at the intersections of both identities. We experience high rates of violent hate crimes, including and especially Black transgender women, as reports show. Black men who have sex with men have an HIV prevalence rate 16 time higher than their white counterparts, a striking health disparity that ties back to the government’s refusal to addressing the illness during its initial rise in the 1980s, and myth that HIV was only a problem for white gay men. It’s why people like Smollett advocate for HIV awareness and resources in a community that’s still reeling from an epidemic otherwise thought of as a specter of yesteryear.
Black LGBT people not only face violence and discrimination from the outside, they also often contend with prejudice from within two broader communities that they share — whether it’s racism from their white LGBT counterparts or anti-queer ignorance from Black people who are heterosexual and cisgender. Perhaps this is why many of the initial headlines about Smollett’s attack noted either the issues of race or sexuality at play in the details, but not often both at the same time.
Even with the increased Black LGBT representation in mainstream culture, the community’s strong, vocal response to the attack on Smollett underscores the unity and resilience of a people whose forbearers have fought and struggled for us to arrive at this present moment. These legacies inform the deep psychic harm inflicted by violence against one of our own, because we know Smollett could’ve been any one of us — and that many others like him don’t survive to tell the tale. The trauma isn’t the beginning and end of the story, and we, like those who came before, will persist.