The attack on Jussie Smollett this week is an ugly reminder of risks facing those who are black and queer in America.
The star of the TV show “Empire” was hospitalized after being attacked in Chicago Tuesday by two people who yelled racial and homophobic slurs, beat him, poured a chemical substance on him, and wrapped a rope around his neck, according to police, who are investigating the attack as a possible hate crime.
Smollett publicly came out as gay in a 2015 interview with Ellen DeGeneres. He said he did it, in part, “so that people understood that they’re not alone.”
Smollett is not alone in these types of attacks. Data shows anti-black and anti-queer violence is on the rise.
In November, the FBI released hate crime statistics for 2017 that showed a five percent increase in reporting of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation bias and a 16 percent increase in anti-black hate crimes.
In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a national organization which aims to reduce violence among LGBTQ people, recorded reports of 52 hate violence-related homicides of people who identify as LGBTQ, the highest number ever recorded by NCAVP; 60% of the victims were black. Twenty-seven of the hate-violence related homicides were of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and 22 of these homicides were of transgender women of color.
“If you are marginalized in this country you are at greater risk for violent acts, and if you are of multiple marginalized identities that reality is just exacerbated,” said Jay Brown, Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) deputy director of programs, research and training. “LGBTQ people, people of color, women, immigrants — if you’re living at the intersection of any of these identities you don’t know where the motivation for somebody’s hateful act is necessarily coming from, and sadly this attack is an example of that.”
Smollett worked with HRC last year on its Equality Rocks campaign.
It’s estimated there are more than 1 million LGBTQ African Americans living in the United States, and they face an increased risk of violence not only because of racism, but because of homophobia and transphobia. Smollett’s attackers allegedly used racial and homophobic slurs as well as a noose, suggesting he was attacked for being black and being gay. Neither his wealth nor his celebrity status could shield him from hate.
“Privilege doesn’t protect,” said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. “There is data to suggest that the vestiges of anti-blackness and white supremacy are very real and that no member of our community … is safe.”
Smollett has been released from Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was treated for cuts to his face and neck, and Chicago Police have released images of “potential persons of interest” in the attack. Police confirmed to USA TODAY that Smollett said in a follow-up interview a day after the incident that his alleged assailants yelled, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again.”
Critics of the slogan have said it’s racially charged, and many on Twitter have used the MAGA detail to connect Smollett’s attack to the surge of hate crimes and violent rhetoric since Trump’s election.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog of hate groups, says since Trump stepped on the political stage, it has seen a “rise in hate crimes, street violence and large public actions organized by white supremacist groups.” Of the 1,094 hate and bias incidents the organization counted in the month after the election, 37% of them directly referenced either Trump, his campaign slogans or his remarks about sexual assault.
Richard Saenz, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, a national legal organization which advocates for LGBTQ rights, said hate crime laws, which were enacted to protect marginalized communities, alone are not enough. Law is ineffective unless people trust those enforcing them, and Saenz says many LGBTQ people, particularly LGBTQ people of color, do not.
“You can have a law in place but if the people who are in charge of enforcing the law are not being properly trained or if they hold these biases themselves, and they’re not being rooted out, the law cannot be an effective tool,” Saenz said.
In a survey of LGBTQ people conducted by Lamda Legal, almost three-quarters of respondents reported having face-to-face contact with the police in the past five years and more than 20% reported hostile interactions. The group says 57% of transgender people feel unsafe calling police.
Saenz said community efforts to combat racism and homophobia have proven more effective than increased policing.
Brown encouraged those in the LGBTQ community to continue following Smollett’s example, to live openly.
“Twenty years ago Matthew Shepard was killed. Twenty years ago James Byrd Jr. was killed. We’ve been talking about hate crimes for a very long time and we know living visible, open lives, even in the face of this reality, is so important,” Brown said. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to go away tomorrow, but it will change hearts and minds and it will eventually keep these tragic things from happening.”
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- Smollett serves as a stark reminder that American lynching and noose attacks are still prevalent
- Kevin Hart defends himself after Twitter drags his post supporting Jussie Smollett
- She was sexually assaulted within months of coming out. She isn’t alone.
- Young, transgender and fighting a years-long battle against suicidal thoughts
- Faces of Pride: Members of the LGBTQ community from every state share what pride means to them
Police are asking that anyone with information about the incident contact Area Central Detectives at 312-747-8382 or report it anonymously to www.cpdtip.com.