On Surviving the Potential Damage Done by Jussie Smollett

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)

I wanted to be wrong.

I wanted to be wrong for the many survivors whose voices will likely not be taken seriously as a result of Jussie Smollett coming forward with his testimony. I wanted to be wrong for the gay child who was molested and afraid to speak out, hoping this story would give him strength. At no point in this instance does not being wrong feel good or right. I cannot rightfully celebrate this because it has the possibility to do more harm than good.

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After reports about Smollett started rolling in like a telenovela, I did not personally believe his statements, though I did not make that feeling public. I did not want to lend myself to the breaking down of another black man—and never in the history of ever has it been a grand idea to trust the police. So I waited. I did my research and came to my own conclusions and waited for the facts to drop. Both the story and the Chicago Police Department had more leaks than the Titanic, and it was evident this was not going to end well...

But still, I wanted to be wrong.

When news of Smollett’s alleged assault broke, there was an outpouring of support from people in all walks of life. It seemed everyone joined together en masse to show that they stood with Jussie and believed his story. They wanted to believe him; not only because it is imperative to believe survivors, but because for so long their own voices were left unheard; they themselves were silenced and suffered traumatic experiences that they never received justice for. The idea of believing survivors seemed to have at at last evolved from a place that has historically silenced black people and placed their stories on the back burner.

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Then came the whirlwind of news in regards to Smollett’s case, and the already suspicious details came to light. Before long, it started to feel like a poorly written Lee Daniels project. And now, finally, we find ourselves at the point in history where Jussie has been charged with allegedly falsifying his attack.

The possibility of this hits hard in many ways—one of the most apparent to me is its potential to erode the progress black members of the LGBTQ community have made in having our voices heard and believed when we are in danger.

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This week, I was called a faggot for the first time, and the situation left me speechless and numb. The first thought that came to my mind was “Will anyone believe me if this goes south?” I was in a public space and the likelihood of my story being found credible was high, but the fact that this thought came to mind bothered me. I am not a high-profile celebrity; my cries for justice would not be taken with the same accord as Smollett’s, simply because I do not wield the same privilege he has garnered.

Did you know that in most states (47, to be exact) attackers of LGBTQ+ members only have to call upon the gay/trans “panic” defense—stating a member of the LGBTQ+ community flirted with them—to have the possibility of getting time off their sentence? Yeah, that’s a thing; and that fact alone is a scary notion as a gay black man.

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Being a black gay man comes with a double target placed on one’s back. When you are part of two marginalized communities, you bear a double risk at safety. The idea of merely existing is seen as a threat, and many want to extinguish that threat by any means necessary.

Jussie is a man of privilege; privilege that has afforded him the ability to have his story heard across multiple platforms and touch many facets. Unfortunately, many do not and never will have this opportunity. In January, CNN reported there were more than 28 murders of trans people in 2018. Those are just reported cases. God knows how many actual instances have taken place. The awareness around these issues barely makes the news and hasn’t registered on a lot of radars. Unfortunately, we typically only hear the cries of the most privileged among us.

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While Jussie is only one person, he is, again, a high-profile black gay man. If it is found that he is lying, it would be an isolated issue, not a trend. Ironically, racists and bigots don’t need much to get their messages of hate across. It is sad and unfortunate how many will now use this instance to further their agendas and continuously use this as an example to excuse their behavior. If Smollett’s account was at all believable, it’s because it’s becoming common practice, which is unsettling. In 2017, The Department of Justice reported that over 7,000 hate crimes occurred; out of those, 60 percent were crimes against a person.

But again, we only hear the most privileged cries, while ignoring the multitude of others who need our help. It is imperative that we believe survivors of these vile crimes, because that belief could be a major part in a person’s recovery. The belief tells them “I see you and I hear you.”

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More often than not, allegations of hate crimes happen to be true, and Jussie, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, knows this to be fact. So, why lie? Why put an even larger target on the backs of people you allegedly stand with and in support of? The reported motive is said to be his angling for more money for his role on Empire, but if it is found that Jussie was indeed lying, there is no money worth this kind of self-destruction.

But more important, if the charges he’s facing turn out to be true, Jussie’s actions place me at risk. They place all of us at risk. His actions place us at risk of not having our stories taken seriously. They put his family and castmates at risk. His family is known for acting; now his actions may have tarnished their name forever—and all for, allegedly, a little extra cash.

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The damage that this story has the potential to do should not be lost upon any of us. I stand by my belief in survivors, and I always will. Victims of any act of violence or hate deserve our support and should be believed, and though he’s placed us in jeopardy, if Jussie Smollett’s situation causes you to doubt future survivors, it’s safe to say you didn’t care about them to begin with.

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About the author

Corey Townsend

Chief Beyoncé Content Officer @ TheRoot. I aspire to be as steadfast & unmovable as Solange's wig. Former President of Hogwart's Black Student Union.