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First Person

Here’s why the attack on Jussie Smollett is so devastating for the Black queer community

This was "MAGA country" long before President Trump took office.

Jussie Smollett attends SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations: "Empire" at The Robin Williams Center on November 14, 2018 in New York City.  (Credit: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)
Jussie Smollett attends SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations: "Empire" at The Robin Williams Center on November 14, 2018 in New York City. (Credit: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: On February 21, Smollett turned himself into police after being charged with filing a false police report. He is accused of allegedly staging an attack in Chicago with the help of two other people.

News broke yesterday that Empire star Jussie Smollett was hospitalized following a racist and homophobic attack in Chicago. Police said Smollett — a Black, gay, and Jewish actor — was attacked by two white men who yelled racist and homophobic slurs, poured an unknown chemical substance on him, and tied a rope around his neck.

The news has not only brought tears to my eyes, it has left me in a state of rage.

Days before this incident, I was grappling with all the incidents affecting Black LGBTQ people and how the world seems to salaciously enjoy watching us suffer at the hands of marginalization and oppression. From news outlets pacifying the incident as a “possible hate crime” to social media users making claims that the incident was set up, I have come to terms with the reality that, although some insist that racism and discrimination are a thing of the past, the world isn’t as welcoming and inclusive as I’d like to believe.

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My thoughts are only confirmed when I hear stories like those of Timothy Dean, a Black gay activist, and Gemmel Moore, a Black gay sex worker — both of whom were found dead on separate occasions in the home of white businessman and political fundraiser Ed Buck in what appeared to be accidental overdoses — and wrestle with the pain and frustration of knowing that we may never see justice for their deaths. It’s when I witness the words and actions of individuals like Kevin Hart, who came under fire recently for anti-LGBTQ tweets and homophobic rhetoric in his comedy, that I know the lives of Black LGBTQ people have been and continue to be under attack.

As I have worked in the last day to process what has transpired, I recognize that nothing about this MAGA political climate or its symbolism is new. While the United States seems much more grim since President Donald Trump took office, the history before him has been one that has elevated people like Trump and eradicated Black LGBTQ people, specifically those who live in their Black LGBTQ identity authentically.

Take, for instance, the 1992 death of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman who led the Stonewall riots and fought back against police brutality. Her death, much like the increasing deaths of Black trans women in the recent years, points to a system actively working to silence the voices of Black LGBTQ people. For years, Black scholars and thought leaders like Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin shed light on the struggles and pains that all Black LGBTQ people face in this country and the actions necessary to create change. Both faced their own subsets of attacks and backlash in their freedom work, proving that while the times have changed, so much has stayed the same.

What happened to Jussie and what has been happening to many other Black LGBTQ people over the years is a symptom of a much larger issue that many refuse to acknowledge. Beyond conversations about the anti-queer discrimination, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism that lives at the foundation of U.S. history, is the understanding that the goal of white supremacy is to ensure the marginalized live in a world of fear.

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Beyond the dismissals that red MAGA hats are a symbol of hatred, are the ways that folks continue to minimize the hate and pain that Black LGBTQ face as “isolated incidents,” or ask what we might have done to provoke a hateful or racist incident. Even more, it’s the ways that the world tries to fraction out the harmful experiences that Black LGBTQ have, as if oppression can only happen to one identity at one time.

The attack against Jussie was a high profile reminder that no matter how much money you have or how successful you are as a Black LGBTQ person, you have and never will be safe in this climate. Joshua Rivera’s astute point in GQ bears repeating: While the allegation that the attacker yelled “MAGA country” was confirmed Wednesday, no one needs to fact check what we’ve long known: this was MAGA country years before Trump took office.

As I sit and watch both of my identities come under attack almost daily, I recognize how easy it would for me to be silent and stay locked in fear. However, I often think about those who have come before me and garner strength through their work and their actions. I often encourage other Black LGBTQ to think back on the words of writers like Audre Lorde, who reminded us to be deliberate and to be afraid of nothing.

As for those who do not live with my shared pain day in and day out, I challenge everyone to be more than just an “ally” to Jussie’s pain and experiences, but rather to be an accomplice to the change this country needs. If we are ever going to make America great, we have to start by doing the work to make it a safer place for Black LGBTQ people to thrive, not just survive.

This piece has been updated to include specific reference and credit to Joshua Rivera’s piece about the same subject in GQ.

Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins is a freelance writer, speaker, and thought leader who likes to examine the intersections of gender, race, and media. They hold a doctorate in educational justice and writes regularly about the experiences of being Black and queer in America. You can follow them on Twitter @DoctorJonPaul or view more of their work at www.DoctorJonPaul.com.