I've written about many upsetting topics about prejudice against the LGBTQ community in this column, but this week's is one of the most unsettling and difficult to write about. It's only been a little over a week since it happened, but with our current news cycle, it's been pushed out of the spotlight. And it shouldn't be. In the early morning of Tuesday, Jan. 29, openly gay black actor Jussie Smollett, who plays the openly gay character of Jamal Lyon on Fox's Empire, was attacked in a racist, homophobic hate crime in Chicago. The actor had just gotten off a plane in Chicago and went to a Subway to grab a sandwich around 2 a.m.
According to Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, Smollett told detectives that during his walk back from Subway, he was attacked by two men near the lower entrance of the Loews Chicago Hotel. Smollett said the two men yelled “Empire fa***t” and “Empire n***er” while striking him. The two men put a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him during the attack as Smollett fought back. Smollett says he was on the phone with his manager when it all happened. He was able to get himself to the hospital and still had the rope around his neck when police arrived, to preserve the evidence.
One day later, Sgt. Cindy Guerra confirmed that Smollett said in a follow-up interview that his attackers yelled, “This is MAGA country.” MAGA, of course, stands for Trump's 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The FBI got involved with the case as well. Police have released images of persons of interest based on surveillance footage, but at press time, no arrests had been made.
When the news broke, Smollett received an outpouring of love and support from many in the entertainment industry and beyond. “The entire studio, network and production stands united in the face of any despicable act of violence and hate — and especially against one of our own,” 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment, which produce Empire, said in a statement.
Taraji P. Henson, who plays Smollett's mother on the show, posted on social media, “I wish what happened to my baby was just one big bad joke but it wasn't and we all feel his pain right now. [Jussie Smollett] is pure love to the bone AND THAT IS WHY SO MANY ARE FEELING HIS PAIN BECAUSE IT IS OUR PAIN!!! I tell you one thing HATE WILL NOT WIN!!!!”
Lee Daniels, the creator of Empire, said on Instagram, “You didn't deserve — nor anybody deserves — to have a noose put around your neck, to have bleach thrown on you. To be called 'die f****t,' 'n****r' or whatever they said to you. You are better than that. We are better than that. America is better than that. It starts at home. … We have to love each other regardless of what sexual orientation we are because it shows that we are united on a united front. … It's just another f***ing day in America.”
On Friday, Feb. 1, Smollett broke his silence to Essence in a statement, following one made earlier by his family. He said, “Let me start by saying that I'm OK. My body is strong but my soul is stronger. More importantly I want to say thank you. The outpouring of love and support from my village has meant more than I will ever be able to truly put into words. As my family stated, these types of cowardly attacks are happening to my sisters, brothers and non-gender–conforming siblings daily. I am not and should not be looked upon as an isolated incident.”
Smollett's statement gets right to the heart of the matter — his attack may have received more headlines due to his fame, but this kind of racist and homophobic behavior is running rampant in American today, especially living in Trump's America. At the end of last year, the FBI reported that hate crimes had spiked 17 percent across the country. This isn't a coincidence.
Some of the right-wing media have claimed that the “MAGA country” detail being left out of Smollett's initial interview means that it's fabricated. But many victims, be they hate crime, rape or domestic violence victims, are in a state of shock after their attack and may not remember every single detail in their initial interview. Smollett's manager, who was allegedly on the phone with him, corroborated the MAGA detail (though it's been reported that the phone was not given to police for privacy reasons).
Ultimately, it really doesn't matter if the assailants shouted, “This is MAGA country” or not (I believe they did, though), because we don't need explicit evidence that Trump's hatred is making people more brazen to display their hatred as well. If the president of the United States can call Mexicans rapists and criminals or say that a KKK rally and an anti-KKK rally have “very fine people on both sides,” then Joe Shmoe on the street can certainly put his racism on full display, too. In terms of Trump's aversion toward the LGBTQ community, look no further than past articles from this very column, be it his ban on trans people in the military, his homophobic chief of staff Mick Mulvaney or his vice president's support of a Christian school that bans LGBT students, parents and faculty.
As out lesbian actress Ellen Page said on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert about Smollett's attack:
“I'm really fired up tonight but it feels impossible not to feel this way right now with the president and Vice President Mike Pence, who wishes I couldn't be married. Let's just be clear, the vice president of America wishes I didn't have the love [I have] with my wife. He wanted to ban that in Indiana. He believes in conversion therapy. He has hurt LGBTQ people so badly as the governor of Indiana. I think the thing we need to know … [is how to] connect the dots. This is what happens. If you are in a position of power and you hate people and you want to cause suffering to them, you go through the trouble, you spend your career trying to cause suffering, what do you think is going to happen? Kids are going to be abused and they're going to kill themselves. People are going to be beaten on the street.”
Connect the dots. That's exactly the point — this attack on Smollett is what many, many Trump supporters believe “MAGA Country” stands for, through the actions of the president and those around him. This racism and homophobia has always been part of America — it's just that now, because of Trump, Pence and their cronies, people are hiding it much less. Trump did say of Smollett's attack, “I've seen it — last night. I think that's horrible. It doesn't get worse, as far as I'm concerned.”
However, as writer Justin Kirkland said in an article for Esquire, “[Trump] then used Smollett's attack to transition into his typical anti-immigration talking points. There was no mention of the attackers' alleged use of his campaign slogan or homophobic and racist language. Just that it — the ambiguously convenient 'it' — is horrible. … The attack on Smollett … serves as a reminder to both people of color and the LGBT community that our current America isn't for them. Pence's history and Trump's irreverence for marginalized communities sends a message that his base wants to hear: The American Dream is for white, heterosexual men. And make no mistake, as Page points out earlier in her speech; the fact that Smollett is a black gay man matters. If being a queer person in Trump's America is damning, then being a queer person of color in Trump's America is more icing on the hate-filled cake.”
This point isn't lost on some leaders on the Democrat side, either. Two progressive African-American senators, who also just announced that they're running for the 2020 presidency, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, tied the attack to an anti-lynching bill they introduced last year that would make these kind of attacks a federal crime. The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act was introduced last June by Harris, Booker and Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, who are the Senate's three black members. It applies to lynchings motivated by a victim's “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.” The bill passed unanimously in the Senate last month but has not yet been voted on in the House, although with a Democrat majority, that shouldn't be a hurdle. “This was an attempted modern-day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate,” Harris tweeted last Tuesday.
One silver lining to this whole tragic incident is that it's brought two marginalized but sometimes opposing minority groups together: the black and LGBTQ communities. While many LGBTQ Americans are black, there are also many cis-gender heterosexual African-Americans who feel homosexuality is wrong (a lot of which is tied to religious beliefs). However, in response to the racist and homophobic hate crime against Smollett, several LGBTQ and black activist organizations, as well as some New York City–based nonprofits, planned a rally to support Smollett and survivors of LGBTQ violence. On Friday last week, organizations including the New York City Anti-Violence Project and Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL) held a “solidarity rally” in Manhattan. “Black LGBTQ communities, particularly black trans women, have been assaulted, murdered, and face violence every day. With the normalization of violence against queer people, fueled by a toxic racist and anti-LGBTQ political agenda, we must address the ongoing violence against our communities,” the event's Facebook page said.
In Trump's America, marginalized communities need to come together and support each other, fighting for equality and against hatred hand in hand. On Saturday, just four days after the attack, Smollett appeared at a previously scheduled show at L.A.'s own Troubadour. He told the crowd, which included his family and California Congresswomen Maxine Waters, “I'm not fully healed yet but I'm going to and I'm going to stand strong with y'all. I had to be here tonight. I couldn't let those motherfuckers win! I will always stand for love…Be as black, be as proud, be as gay … Now is the time. Be blacker. Be gayer!”
Thank you, Jussie, for your bravery, and for your inspiring words. As RuPaul says at the end of her show every week, “Can I get an amen up in here?”