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Jussie Smollett Reminds Us That Fame Doesn't Protect Queer and Trans POC

The 'Empire' actor appeared on 'Good Morning America' to speak on his attack and defend himself against those calling him a liar.

by Arielle Gray
Feb 14 2019, 11:27pm

On January 28, Jussie Smollett was attacked in what has been labeled a hate crime. Police reported that the Empire star was called racial and homophobic slurs before being beaten by the assailants. An “unknown substance” was poured on Smollett and a noose tied around his neck before the attackers made their escape. The report suggests that Smollett’s celebrity status partially motivated the attack because the assailants recognized Smollett from his role on Empire. Smollett, who came out as gay in 2015 when his character Jamal Lyons did on Empire, is one of the most visible members of the LGBTQ community in current American culture.

Police said they recovered video footage and released photos of possible persons of interest in the attack. While an outpouring of support for Smollett erupted on social media, skeptics have thrown doubt across the actor and activist’s story, claiming certain facts don’t add up. Smollett addressed the “doubters” on Thursday in an interview with Good Morning America, stating that it’s "not necessarily that you don't believe that this is the truth, you don't even want to see the truth.”

Doubting that a hate crime could happen reflects the general ignorance of the daily violence queer and trans people of color face and endure every day. Nuanced and existing at a myriad of different intersections, the attack on Smollett represents a unique form of racialized queerphobia that impacts QTPOC. Seeing a Black body terrorized because of race and sexual orientation is an all too familiar scene to the QTPOC community, which is why accepting it as reality wasn’t a problem for us when it seemed difficult for those doubters to believe.

While Smollett’s celebrity status was more than likely a factor in his assailants targeting him, his cultural capital and his access to power and money make him one of the rare QTPOC whose attacks are reported and investigated. Violence against queer and trans people of color occurs at alarming rates yet numbers suggest that because of a lack of trust in law enforcement, many LGBTQ people don’t report hate crimes to the police. Studies also show that LGBTQ people experience high levels of harassment and discrimination from police officers and law enforcement. When taking into account race, those numbers are compounded. This may be why Smollett was reluctant to report his attack in the first place. Furthermore, there is a lack of numerical and statistical research specifically addressing the unique violence and racism that QTPOC face, even within the larger queer and trans community.


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Some would argue visibility and fame don’t protect black and brown bodies in the ways that those things offer shields for white bodies. “Contrary to popular belief, visibility does not protect us,” wrote black and queer civil rights activist, writer, and scholar Preston Mitchum in a piece for The Advocate addressing the attack. “And [visibility] may exacerbate harm, not curtail it.”

While Mitchum’s observations ring true, Smollett’s visibility is what makes him a figure to stand behind and to stand in solidarity with. QTPOC aren’t made visible and this lack of visibility has direct impacts on our health and well-being. Even in films centered around QTPOC, like Stonewall for example, the plots so often revolve around a white protagonist while simultaneously erasing QTPOC.

In a 2018 interview with Self, Laverne Cox addresses a feeling of survivor’s guilt knowing she’s found success while so many others like her struggle. “I understand that I’m very lucky,” she said. “I understand that I’ve been chosen. It makes me sad... it’s very intense.” This epitomizes the privileges of fame and social capital. Cox, who gained attention from her role in Orange Is The New Black, became a visible spokesperson for QTPOC, much like Jussie Smollett did when he revealed his queer identity. “The month I was on the cover of TIME magazine, five trans women were killed,” Cox said in another interview with The Cut. The juxtaposition of her fame with the darkness of the reality of trans existence is a grim awakening of the ways visibility can provide a shield from violence.

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Smollett’s attack was horrendous, but we can still acknowledge that there are many more QTPOC whose stories are not splashed across the landing pages of websites, whose names are not hashtags or trending topics on Twitter. We can still acknowledge that what happened to Smollett was wrong while holding our culture accountable for the ways in which it silences and erases QTPOC who aren’t famous, specifically Black trans women who are killed at the highest rates in the QTPOC community. We can still condemn Smollett’s attackers, while acknowledging that being a cis man comes with privileges in our culture—privileges that trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people of color don’t experience.

There’s no doubt that the outrage over Smollett is a good thing. The visibility is a good thing. But the cavalry of celebrities and fans with decent intentions who are upset by Smollett’s attack should seek to galvanize in similar ways when other QTPOC face violence, hate, and discrimination. Waiting for the invisible to be made visible through a body with celebrity status means that many more of us are harmed, and die, in silence.

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Tagged:
RACISM
Homophobia
queer
attack
empire
transphobic
hate crimes
Jussie Smollett