Whew, it’s been one helluva Black History Month, hasn’t it?
In the early morning of January 29th, Jussie Smollett, a gay black actor best known for his role on FOX’s Empire, reported that he had been attacked by two individuals in downtown Chicago. He’s alleged that his attackers assaulted him with homophobic and racist slurs, physically beat him, poured a chemical substance on him, and wrapped a noose around his neck. Some reports have claimed that at one point during their attack, the assailants chanted “This is MAGA Country.” These are horrific charges that we first wrote about as they occurred. The incident seemed to further highlight the very real, recent ongoing rise of hate crimes in the United States.
Then, after weeks of speculation, last Thursday the actor was officially charged with filing a false police report. He was arraigned and released on bail. Though his motives remain unclear, the Chicago Police have alleged that Smollett paid $3,500 to two brothers – Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundario – to stage the attack. The Chicago Police (CPD) further allege that Smollett sent himself a racially threatening and homophobic death threat letter to FOX studios on January 22nd. The ongoing case circled through yet another twist over the weekend as the FBI came forward with the announcement that they were not yet comfortable with the analysis that Smollett sent himself the letter, seemingly contradicting the CPD. There are also subsequent reports that Smollett’s check to the Osundario brothers was for personal fitness and nutrition benefits, not an attack.
Non-black queer people and straight cis people have had very different interactions with this tumultuous, ongoing news story than queer black folks. Our closeness to its themes has at times felt overwhelming, intimate, and ultimately – isolating. Watching the narrative and facts evolve has been met with pain or confusion. Disbelief. Heartbreak. Exhaustion. In fact, as writers for this website, there were times when we struggled with how to approach the topic at all.
We realized that if we were feeling alone, angry, sad, or bewildered – chances were good that a lot of you, our black queer and trans siblings, were maybe feeling the same way. So we decided to sit down at our virtual kitchen table and hold open space.
Whatever you’re going through right now, please know that you are not alone.
First of all, this has all been a lot. Let’s check in with each other. How have yall been holding up this month?
Alexis: This has been a really shitty month, but most of my months feel shitty, so I’m not sure that’s saying a whole lot. With this and all the extra kinds of tomfuckery people are pulling during Black History Month (I cannot even properly describe to you the pervasive and subversive racist act my dad and I were on the receiving end of today, for example. That alone, the utter inability to tell you, has me ready to live in the woods). I don’t feel anything I haven’t already felt – disappointment, anger, fear, etc. – just deeper and a bit more intense than usual.
Natalie: It has been a lot but, surprisingly, I’m okay. Admittedly, being okay means that I’ve disengaged myself from conversations and focused the bulk of my energy on other things (my nephews help a lot in this regard).
Reneice: Yeah, I’m similarly feeling drained, disappointed, and disengaged this month. It’s been a minute since I’ve felt so low and unwanted in this world. It’s been hard to function, it’s been hard to process and understand, and I’ve found myself in a very bitter and even defeated mindset more often than not.
Carmen: I think my largest feeling right now is exhaustion? Y’all, I am tired. This month has been tiring. It’s the longest and most isolating 30 days I can actively remember as a black queer person in this country and it hasn’t even actually been 30 days yet!
There is almost nothing that white supremacy will not do to assert itself. History has proven that time and time again.
What was your first reaction when you heard about Jussie’s attack? Do you regret that reaction now?
Alexis: My first reaction was to Jussie’s attack was just hopelessness.
Natalie: I had that exact same reaction, Lex.
Alexis: Logically, I know that just because someone is famous, that doesn’t protect them from evil and shit. It’s just that, I always hope in the back of my mind, that if you’re [something] enough, you can buy/possess/hold on to the safety that you can’t get when you’re not enough. You know? Which is fucked up. It’s one of those things where you’re hoping it gets better on the other side, and then you find out there is no other side. Shit’s just the same in a different way.
Natalie: Yes! There’s a small part of me — a small part of all of us, perhaps — that hopes that there’s something we can do to protect ourselves from being victims of the world’s racism and homophobia. These moments that serve to remind us that there’s really nothing we can do are so, so jarring.
I also felt heartbroken, of course, for Jussie and for the entire Smollett family. They’ve been part of my life since Jurnee was playing Michelle’s best friend on Full House.
Carmen: The Smollets are one of those families who I’ve long held in my heart. I still first think of Jurnee as Michelle Tanner’s best friend! Which isn’t to say that she (or her siblings) haven’t had long and successful careers since that history. Only that I felt intimate to them because of her work, which dates back to the root of my childhood.
Natalie: And, yes, I believed him… and I will never for a second regret having done that. There are a lot of folks for whom the details of the Smollett attack sounded concocted from the outset and to a degree, I get it, but also, I wonder: Do you realize how pernicious racism is in this country? There is almost nothing that white supremacy will not do to assert itself. History has proven that time and time again. For hate crimes in particular, the spectacle is the point — it’s Vincent Chin being bashed to death by a baseball bat; it’s Matthew Shepard tied to a fence; it’s James Byrd drug behind a pick-up truck. It’s meant to make a statement beyond death, that’s the point.
Carmen: That’s the thing! In retrospect I understand a lot of the cynicism around his story – who randomly carries bleach and a rope in the middle of the night walking down the street in one of the richest neighborhoods in Chicago, etc. But also, no matter how wild my imagination of what racism and homophobia in this country can look like, to paraphrase one of my favorite writers Jamilah Lemieux, “America has always been wilder.” There’s a reason that his account felt true on a gut level, right from the beginning – it’s intangibly weaved into whole history of this country.
I hope that if presented with a similar situation in the future, I would react with the exact same empathy and compassion that I gave not only Jussie, but the entire fabric of our black queer and trans family. The danger of our lives isn’t changing because of one singular incident.
Reneice: My initial reaction was a combo of anger and fear. Like you both said, there are endless examples of senseless murders with almost unbelievable methods and execution in this country, and they are very real.
If there’s one thing living in this country has taught me, it’s that white Americans have really delighted in finding new deranged ways to kill black people. So of course I believed the attack was real. Far worse things happen with regularity, hate group registration and membership are on the rise (Ed’s Note: for the third year in a row). All these people are feeling emboldened to openly share or act on their violently racist homophobic beliefs. It’s a real danger.
I was afraid to leave my apartment for a few days after the news broke, as I am after any news about someone being attacked or killed for looking and loving like me. I was afraid for Jussie, for all QTPOC, and for whatever message that succeeding at such a high profile attack was sending to all the people who wish to harm us. I was afraid of the message being given those people, who now know they’d be able to do so much hurt with little to no consequence, because the the system is rigged in their favor.
Honestly, I’m still in disbelief. It just doesn’t make sense to me. If it truly was Jussie, I’m so unforgivingly disappointed.
What about his subsequent arrest? Did that affect you, too?
Alexis: When his case “turned,” I was really pissed off and really sad and really confused. Then, being confused just made me more sad and more pissed off.
I refuse to believe a victim is lying because being a victim is complicated. There is no such thing as a perfect victim; given the opportunity, everything will eventually be turned against them because society is fucked up. I refuse to be one more person who does not believe them. I know how it feels not to be believed and I wouldn’t wish that shit on anybody.
So, when the case turned, it felt like a huge fuck you to victims and it pissed me off. And then, when we all, I guess, realized out that the Chicago Police Department had potentially manipulated the case and what was presented wasn’t necessarily the truth – that pissed me off even more! Victims are already taken advantage of. This just felt like another way to screw them over. It felt like another reason for people not to believe victims.
Natalie: There was a moment, during the Chicago Police Department’s press conference, where the weight of the disappointment landed directly on my chest. I had flashbacks to the Duke lacrosse scandal and what a chilling effect that had on a community just down the road from where I grew up. That case has been weaponized against every rape survivor in the years since and I feared the Smollett case becoming that for future hate crimes. But, in the days since, I’ve mellowed — mostly because I’ve been reminded that CPD is trash — and just started to come to grips with the fact that we’ll probably never know what really happened.
Carmen: That’s been the hardest part for me, coming to terms with the fact that we’ll probably never know for sure. I can’t deny that a lot of what’s surrounding Jussie Smollett right now doesn’t make complete sense; I also can’t deny that the Chicago PD has not handled this case clearly or professionally. This is not how you build trust.
Reneice: Yeah, I was bewildered. I cannot even begin to imagine why Jussie would orchestrate something like this. Honestly, I’m still in disbelief. It just doesn’t make sense to me. And this statement being made about him wanting a better salary being the motivation? So then the next logical move is to stage an attack? It’s nonsense. I don’t think we have the full picture. I’m not willing to throw my support and belief behind CPD. If it truly was Jussie, I’m so disappointed.
I’m not paranoid for not trusting any police department at face value. Still, the cognitive dissonance can certainly feel that way.
So then, did the Chicago Police Department’s involvement in this case impact the way you looked at this story?
Alexis: I don’t trust the police for shit and that still hasn’t changed. It won’t ever change.
Natalie: I hate that, for even a second, I considered them a fair arbiter of justice. The Chicago Police Department has always been trash and, likely, will always be trash. This is the same police department that blamed Laquan McDonald for his own death for over a year when they knew what really had happened. They tried to keep it a secret. This is the same police department that had its own black site to torture and interrogate people. The same police department that had to be publicly shamed into investigating the deaths of two trans women. That police department has never been interested in justice for black folks or LGBT people.
With each passing day, it seems like the CPD’s case against Jussie unravels a bit more — first, the alleged payment, then the letter — and, now the Superintendent is going on Good Morning America?!
They are not interested in justice. They are interested in rehabilitating their image at the expense of black and gay people.
Reneice: Yep. See the above responses.
Carmen: Part of what bothers me is the feeling that every time there’s a new “turn” in this case, I find myself having to re-explain – especially to white people, though not exclusively to them – the very valid reasons for distrust between black communities and CPD. Even in the last few days, as further developments in the story have cast new doubt on the police department’s case against Jussie, I feel like I’ve largely seen these new wrinkles being reported in black media.
I’m not paranoid for not trusting any police department at face value (Natalie already did a masterful job of explaining why). Still, the cognitive dissonance can certainly feel that way sometimes.
According to the National Anti-Violence Project, of the total number of anti-gay or trans homicides in 2017, 75% of the victims were people of color. 56% of those victims were black.
What has this incident revealed to you about the support systems that exist (or don’t exist, as the case may be) for LGBT people? Do you feel those support systems are the same or different for black LGBT folks?
Natalie: I don’t know that it’s revealed anything, as much as it’s reaffirmed the belief that all of our support is conditional. No battle is ever really won. Your worth is up for debate at any possible moment. The support system that you have around you can be destroyed, just as quickly as it was erected.
Whenever I hear someone engage in rape apologism, I’m always quick to remind them that there’s probably someone in their life who’s been victimized and now knows that person can’t be trusted with their truth. The same is true here – we now know who our allies are and who if, God forbid, something happens to us because we black and/or queer, whom we can trust with our truth.
Reneice: I can’t say that this really made me think about or question my support system, but I do agree with Natalie it was a reminder that in this white, cis, straight, oriented world, support and safety for black queer people will always be conditional.
Alexis: The support systems for LGBT people are super different from the ones for black LGBT people. There was something I was reading – maybe I was just having a conversation with someone – that, even if something goes against white LGBT people, at the end of the day, they can fall back on being white. We don’t have that.
There is absolutely nothing we have to fall back on and when our community (especially straight and cis black people) also gives up on us, it’s one of the most inhumane things that can be felt. And I’m sick of it.
Natalie: To Lex’s point, seeing straight and cis black people wholly accept the leaks and overall narrative from the CPD, when they absolutely would not have accepted the CPD’s response as legitimate in almost any other circumstance, has been particularly difficult to stomach.
Carmen: Yes. Yes, yes. Thank you for naming it. That’s been the hardest part for me as well.
Natalie: Right. Our support systems have never been the same. Whatever support systems we have exist almost exclusively between other QTPOCs. We can only count on ourselves to lift each other up.
Reneice: The knowledge that our support system exists exclusively between QTPOCs is exactly why I said the Smollett case didn’t necessarily affect mine. I already know better than to have hopes of leaning on anyone outside our community in times like these. So yes, the support systems are different. Nearly every LGBTQ service, center, charity, or publication was and is made to best serve the white LGBTQ population. As QTPOCs, we’ve had to navigate that and support our own communities with fewer resources.
Carmen: And even within QTPOC spaces and black queer/trans spaces, I can’t help but think about our black trans and gender non-conforming siblings first in times like these, right? Black trans women and gender non-confirming femmes remain the largest group affected by anti-LGBT hate crimes. According to the National Anti-Violence Project, of the total number of anti-gay or trans homicides in 2017, 75% of the victims were people of color. 56% of those victims were black.
Reneice is absolutely correct that as queer and trans people of color are often forced to make do without the resources given to our white peers. Natalie and Lex are absolutely right that we’re also often without the support of our straight and cis communities of color as well. But, even when taking all of that into account, our trans and GNC siblings are often still left without proper support – even within our own spaces. How can we do our part to help lift that burden? What’s our role? I’ve spent a lot of time this month thinking about that.
“We say ‘believe survivors’ because it is the first step toward transformation and because it requires empathy but it also, often, expands our understanding of what bodily autonomy looks like.” – Tarana Burke, Founder of the #MeToo Movement
I know this is hard because everything still feels unfinished, but for right now: What’s your takeaway? What would you want to say to any other black LGBT people, if you could?
Alexis: My takeaway is this is there’s no reason for me to catch up on Empire any time soon, lol (which pains me because I’m in love with Taraji).
I think when all this first happened, I felt a different kind of hopeless. Generally, hopeless – at least in regards to myself – is already kind of my default. That’s not new. I’m also kind of disillusioned by certain kinds of hope when I think about the world at large. But, usually I can find a crack of hope in someone close to me. I couldn’t do that this time. I felt stuck. It really messed me up for a while.
Two things happened on the internet that started to bring me out of it: First, in their Instastory, @k_pmz talked about how this Jussie thing is fucked up – but also, it was always going to be fucked up because no one ever believes victims and survivors. So, the only thing we can do is show up for each other and continue to do the work. They’re fundraising for Za-hair, a black trans man who was attacked by seven people in a convenience store. More than anything, that showed me that whatever Jussie Smollett did or didn’t do wasn’t really a conversation worth having if people weren’t going to act in response to it. And a lot of people I know, weren’t.
The second part was actually two tweets by @Judnikki: “i will never be embarrassed for believing someone that was attacked because i’m not a liar and empathy is not about being right. / i’d rather believe 100 ppl and find out 10 are lying then be miserable and ignorant like the rest of you.” That part about empathy not always being right, it made me feel like a weight was lifted.
There’s this thing within the black community about having to be right all the time, about having to be beyond perfect and invincible in order to be considered human. I couldn’t find evidence that would support Jussie. I couldn’t turn people who believed the police into people who didn’t. I couldn’t do anything to make my straight and cis friends and family care more.
I couldn’t explain how terrified I am all the time to people I love. They don’t know how this fear is lodged in my throat. It felt like this entire Smollett case just gave me another time to try to defend my existence and fail. So I’ve tried to remember Toni Morrison telling us that it’ll never be enough. White people and non-black people or straight cis black people will always demand that we prove we’re human. For them, “there will always be one more thing.” I don’t want to waste my time reaching for one more thing when I could be reaching for a community that already loves and supports me. Those are the people who need me to show up for them, the way they already show up for me.
Last thing, let me also say this: I recently saw Be Steadwell’s musical A Letter to My Ex and aziza barnes’ BLKS play at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Being in spaces that are intentionally black – spaces that are cultivated by black LGBT people who are keeping their eyes and hearts on black LGBT people and our stories – is so healing, especially during a time like this. To my community, please keep creating and finding one another. Keep reaching out and talking and listening and laughing, because we really are all we got. We are more than enough. I forget sometimes, but I hope we’ll remember it more often than not.
Reneice: Be safe. Believe victims. Hold people in power accountable. Love yourselves and each other. Don’t give in.
Natalie: It’s hard for me to know what to take away from this mess, honestly. I keep thinking about this strange fact: The same judge that arraigned Jussie Smollett on filing a false police report last week also arraigned R. Kelly on sexual abuse charges on Friday.
We lose nothing by believing victims when they tell us their stories, but the cost when we don’t believe victims is far too high for us to continue paying it. Whatever happened here – always default to empathy. Always offer your compassion. As the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, notes:
“We say ‘believe survivors’ because it is the first step toward transformation and because it requires empathy but it also, often, expands our understanding of what bodily autonomy looks like.”
That’s how we create a better world for all of us.
Carmen: It’s hard to turn to love in times like this, I get it. It’s hard to open yourself and your heart when it feels like the world is punching down on it. I’ve always believed it’s harder to love than to become callous. I think that’s still true. Believing survivors first is an act of love. Taking care of your community is an act of love. And I suppose acknowledging distrust and pain is also its own kind of love, because it’s the only way to open a door towards healing. I think we’re doing disservice when we imagine love as pink paper hearts and kissy face emojis. Community care is sticky, ugly and complicated. It’s opens you up to pain and humiliation. I also believe, despite whatever its costs, that’s the kind of only love that is worth it.