HUFFPOST PERSONAL

I Don't Regret Believing Jussie Smollett. Here's Why.

Believe victims. Don’t let this story plant doubt in your mind when it’s possible that unconscious bias already l
Believe victims. Don’t let this story plant doubt in your mind when it’s possible that unconscious bias already lives there.

A month before the 2016 election, my husband and I became the victims of ongoing hate crimes and harassment. My husband is a transgender man, and I’m a queer cisgender woman. The crimes against us were motivated by homophobia and transphobia and lasted for about nine months. We don’t talk much about what happened to us because it was painful and traumatic, and I’m not going to elaborate here. But I say it now to make a point: Anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes happen, and they happened to us.

Despite our experience, we were lucky in so many ways. We are both white (meaning we are more likely to be believed) and have connections to community and support. We have access to resources. We live in Philadelphia, where the definition of a hate crime includes gender identity and sexual orientation (though more widely in Pennsylvania, it does not). It’s also a city where there’s a permanent Office of LGBT Affairs. My husband and I reside in a neighborhood known for its high LGBTQ+ population and liberal politics. People believed us, protected us and helped us.

As white queers with privilege, we are not the face of most anti-LGBTQ+ violence, and our largely positive experience in reporting it is far from everyone’s experience.

In the aftermath of Jussie Smollett’s arrest for allegedly orchestrating his own supposedly racist and homophobic attack, I don’t want you to focus on Smollett himself. I’d like you to remember this: Hate crimes against black people and LGBTQ+ people happen regularly and have been on the rise in recent years. Do not let one celebrity’s allegedly false report lead you to believe otherwise.

The point of this article is not to condemn, defend or even examine Smollett’s actions. Plenty of other pieces will do that. I would rather use this moment to shine a light on the reality of hate crimes in the United States, and how they’ve been growing over the past few years.

The FBI reports that anti-black hate crimes increased by 16 percent from 2016 to 2017. There was also an increase in reported hate crimes targeting people for sexual orientation and targeting transgender people specifically. Reporting hate crimes to the FBI is not mandatory, so this is likely not the whole picture.

2017 was the deadliest year in recent history for LGBTQ+ people in the United States, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. If you are both black and LGBTQ+, you’re much more likely to be a victim of a hate crime. Black victims of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes are more likely to experience serious violence. According to a recent Human Rights Commission report, 82 percent of transgender people murdered in 2018 were women of color. The people most likely to experience a hate crime fatality are black transgender women

Attacks and deadly violence against black and LGBTQ+ people are happening, whether Jussie Smollett lied about being attacked or not, with folks who live at the intersection of racism and homophobia/transphobia the most likely to be seriously harmed.

I have seen a lot of folks lament that “now real victims are going to be less likely to be believed.” While that may seem logical, I’d like to point out that we have never been quick to believe and rally behind black queer victims of violence. That started long, long before Smollett allegedly lied. Perhaps he’s given “more ammunition” to people who won’t believe victims, but did those people ever rally behind victims in the first place?

Attacks and deadly violence against black and LGBTQ+ people are happening, whether Jussie Smollett lied about being attacked or not, with folks who live at the intersection of racism and homophobia/transphobia the most likely to be seriously harmed.

There are many examples of black LGBTQ+ people who experience racist and homophobic violence and yet are regarded with the skepticism of “Did it really happen that way?” There’s Nizah Morris, a black transgender woman in Philadelphia who died under mysterious circumstances while accepting a courtesy ride from the police. The medical examiner ruled her 2002 death a homicide, though the police department initially refused to accept this ruling, and investigation and controversy have surrounded her death ever since. There’s CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman who spent time in men’s prisons after she stabbed and killed a man. The man was violently attacking her and her friends when she decided to defend herself.

There’s Sakia Gunn, a young black lesbian murdered in Newark, NJ in 2003. Her story shines a light on how little attention black LGBTQ+ victims of hate crimes get as opposed to their white counterparts. Sakia’s death received approximately 3 percent of the media coverage that Matthew Shepard’s murder did in the same time period. These are just a few well-known examples of black queer victims of violence who did not get justice, attention or care.  

I work with youth in the juvenile justice system, many of whom are LGBTQ+ youth of color, and I hear similar stories from them constantly. Someone attacks them based on their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or a combination of all. If they report it, they’re often not believed, or arrested as the aggressors.

This isn’t shocking ― research shows that LGBTQ+ people often experience discrimination and harassment when they report their victimization to the police. LGBTQ+ people of color are even less likely to trust authorities and make a report, and it’s based in legitimate fear. Who wants to become the next CeCe McDonald?

Don’t let the Jussie Smollett case distract us from what is actually happening every day. When we focus on his story, we miss the point.

I don’t regret believing Jussie Smollett because anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes happen and are on the rise. They happened to me in my comfortable progressive neighborhood, and they are happening more often to people who are way more marginalized than my husband and me.

Believe victims. Don’t let this story plant doubt in your mind when it’s possible that unconscious bias already lives there.

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