Dear Straight Black Men: You Cannot Choose Your Outrage In Jussie Smollett’s Assault

Blackness and queerness are not mutually exclusive.

Jussie Smollett’s racially charged and terroristically homophobic attack has shaken both vocal and muted voices in the Black LGBTQ+ community. While this realization is all the more obvious and expected, as being brazenly victimized for simply being is no new feature within the lives of Black queer folk, the double dagger of one’s own people negating half of Smollett’s identity is unsettling. This philosophy was and continues to be seen as several members of the Black community inadvertently erased Smollett’s queerness in an attempt to wholly categorize this hate crime as exclusively motivated by race.

As a queer member of both the African-American and Afro-Caribbean communities, myself, I’ve personally found that this sense of refusal inflicted from these two groups onto queer identities only facilitates in winding back the clock of progress that we are all desperately trying to propel.

  • Smollett, whose life somewhat mirrors that of his openly gay character on the Fox drama Empire, was brutalized in two ways that equally qualify as hate crimes — not “possibly,” but rather, actually. The reality of him being called both a “n***er” and a “f***ot” in the same breath seemed to be outright overlooked by several outlets and distant admirers of the star who failed to acknowledge both identities and the equal roles they played in his assault.

    Those who often perpetuate this division live in places of conventionally heteronormative power —whether literally or figuratively — and hold great influence over those who, ever so minutely, share or have simply considered similar sentiments.

    This likely inadvertent practice of impact often emanates from a subculture that modern society has grown an obsessive fervor for: Hollywood. Particularly, members of Black Hollywood’s elite tend to lend the most to this construct that Blackness trumps queerness.

    This rhetoric was solidified when the likes of Steve Harvey and Tyrese, though expressing genuine concern for Smollett’s well-being, chose to focus on the actor and LGBTQ+ advocate’s race, and refused to acknowledge his sexuality as an equal factor in his two-folded assault.

    Harvey, who took to Instagram with encouraging words for Smollett, made a point to stress, “As a Black man in this country, I’m down with you.” While he followed-up stressing that the actor’s “sexual preference” — with the latter term holding significantly controversial weight in the implication that one chooses who one loves —is a non-factor were mentioned, it should be noted that, in actuality, it does matter.

  • In the same vein, singer Tyrese echoed Harvey’s sentiments by reassuring the Trump supporters who terrorized Smollett that they “messed with one of ours,” inherently, once again, redirecting the narrative to the actor’s Blackness as opposed to his Black queerness.

  • Failure to acknowledge Smollett as a proud member of these two groups lends to the rising rate of hate crimes, where according to the FBI, African American and LGBTQ+ communities are the highest recorded victims.

    As of 2016, the Black community stood as the most-targeted group in the nation, comprised of more than a quarter of all hate crime victims at 28.4 percent. The LGBTQ+ community proved to be the second most targeted, at 17.5 percent.

    Due to the failure to outwardly vocalize and acknowledge queer lives, many who identify as a part of the community, or consider themselves to be allies, have made it their duties to advocate against this silent erasure and speak up for those who are being muted.

  • Furthermore, and arguably most unfortunately, our stories and narratives as Black queer folk continue to serve as forms of caricatural entertainment for usually heterosexual-central audiences. The mocking nature of characters like Martin’s Sheneneh, In Living Color’s “Men on Film” skits and even the recent craze of Madea, give breath to the seemingly age-old sentiment that Black male queer lives are limited to men dressed as caricatures of the opposite sex.

    Though enjoyable to watch for some, when these are the only narratives told of our lives — ideated by people who aren’t even queer — it does more harm than good. This consumeristic art that serves no purpose in fostering our acceptance into wider society only blankets the hatred that many feel toward our existence, only for it to resurface once the laughs dissipate.

    Only throughout recent years have we seen a valid and diverse representation of queer Black figures in television and film with the likes of Curtis Hold in Arrow, Lafayette Reynolds in True Blood, William Hill in This Is Us, Poussey Washington in Orange Is the New Black and, of course, Jamal Lyon in Empire who show that our lives are more than just occasional inserts of comedic relief.

    This further lends to the assumptive narrative by several people born within the African diaspora that one’s queerness must be directly linked to an early form of trauma that likely occurred during childhood — leading to the implication that queerness is unnatural and fickle in relation to one’s Blackness. This process of thinking only proves one thing: opinions of Black queer lives have always been and continue to be formulated through a false sense of reality that privileged groups use as a means to feel superior.

    As the product of a healthy, communicative, and deeply-rooted Trinidadian family, my experiences as a queer man of color growing up on an isle, on one hand, started just as innocently as those of my heterosexual cis gender brothers and sisters who boast the same upbringing. On the other hand, the disparities and grossly homophobic gestures exposed to me in this same space neither overshadowed nor amplified my struggles as a Black man. These respective expressions of prejudice, though different in how they were conveyed, produced the same result — hate — and they both sparked an initial feeling of unworthiness that both Black straight and queer individuals know all too well.

    While it may not — and cannot — be said enough, it is counterproductive and problematic AF for members of any marginalized group to negate the process and validity of members of another. By failing to acknowledge the lives and experiences of queer men and women, as it specifically relates to their sexual identities, one is directly aiding in erasing that group’s mark on greater society.

    In such a case as Jussie Smollett, who proudly identifies as both Black and gay, ignoring his experiences as a queer individual — whether inadvertently or purposefully — is just as much as a disservice to the group that is acknowledged as it is to the one that is being overlooked.

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