The Overlapping Identities of Jussie Smollett and Why It Matters

Jussie Smollett, known for his portrayal of Jamal Lyon in the Fox drama series “Empire” and advocacy about sexual fluidity in the queer community, was assaulted on his way back to his apartment in downtown Chicago Tuesday morning. Smollett told the Chicago Police Department that after he left a local fast food joint, he was attacked by two white men in ski masks, who both made racist and homophobic slurs while chanting “MAGA country” throughout the assault. The Chicago Police Department reported later that the two assailants poured an ‘unknown liquid’ on Smollett, fractured Smollett’s rib, as well as tied a rope around his neck before fleeing the scene.

After Smollett was hospitalized following the assault, many politicians and celebrities took to Twitter to show their support for Smollett.

While many were expressing their narratives of grief, some people also felt as if both the black and queer communities were actively ignoring the intersecting identities of Jussie Smollett.

In fact, the assault of Jussie Smollett started an entire conversation around how blackness and queerness are intersecting identities that harbor specific struggles within different spaces. Many individuals noted that the refusal to acknowledge the blackness of Smollett in mainstream LGBTIQ+ spaces, and the negligence to bring up Smollett’s sexuality in black spaces, was a disservice to black queer people everywhere.

While all this was happening, some questioned if the assault was even real. 

The mere accusation that a hate crime is false, for many marginalized communities, is a direct indicator of how most hate crimes are dealt with in the United States – they get swept under the rug.

The assault of Jussie Smollett rocked both communities, but more specifically triggered a conversation about how commercialized, mainstream LGBTIQ+ and black spaces tend to err on the side of blatant neglect of the people within their communities who identify with other marginalized identities. Smollett highlighted one of the 21st century’s most difficult obstacles: the entrenched white supremacist, cis heteronormative imperialist perspectives that demand you must be constrained to one identity and only that identity. That in order to advance the black community or the LGBTIQ+ community, you must claim only a singular cause (as if you are only black or only LGBTIQ+.) This methodology completely ignores how queer people in the black community navigate black spaces when there may be homophobia present, and how black queer people navigate LGBTIQ+ spaces when whiteness may shut down any other perspective. It discards all the people within these communities who do not follow the mainstream accepted perspective of being black or being LGBTIQ+. It leaves no room to be proud of being black and being queer at the same time.

While Jussie Smollett being attacked by homophobic white supremacists sparked this conversation within 24 hours of the attack, for many black queer activists, this was a conversation they had been trying to have for years. Many advocated for justice for all black queer people in the ways that Jussie Smollett was acknowledged, noting that nearly 128 trans people, mostly trans women of color, had been murdered in the last five years according to the Human Rights Campaign in 2018. Many of these victims have been utterly neglected by not only the government, but by the media and by fellow citizens at large. Their existence being violently extinguished by white supremacist homophobes had not garnered the response of more than 1,000 tweets per hour, nor public statements by notable news outlets that Jussie Smollett’s assault had.

What can be taken away from the attack on Jussie Smollett besides the obvious atrocity of a hate crime? The lack of visibility and protection of queer people of color hurts everyone –  specifically when there is no record of justice for the assaults and murders of queer people of color.

We must recognize that when we do not involve other marginalized identities within our communities that this hurts us in our fight for equity. In order to empower queer people and black people and Latinx people and differently-abled people and every other marginalized identity, we must recognize that there are different oppressions facing a diverse array of people within our communities. We must acknowledge who has the power in our communities and who does not. Any liberation of Latinx people is not liberation until queer Latinx have the same visibility, standing and rights. Any liberation of LGBTIQ+ people is not liberation until queer people of color also have the same visibility, standing and rights. What happened to Jussie Smollett has happened to hundreds of other queer black people, but this time it was acknowledged by powerful figureheads that have the capacity to systematically change these structures of oppression and by the news outlets that saw public outcry and decided that the brutal attack on Jussie Smollett was worth covering. They didn’t cover trans children of color who commit suicide. They didn’t cover all the trans women of color who were murdered in the last five years. As a society we need to carry the same energy we carry for Jussie Smollett for all the other queer people of color who are murdered, assaulted, outcasted and neglected. The same amount of energy for the coverage of the various Pride parades needs to be applied to how many queer people, specifically queer people of color, are murdered regularly in the United States. Queer people of color deserve to have their humanity acknowledged, supported, and protected in all spaces – and it starts with us.