as a gay man, i questioned jussie smollett's attack and my friends turned on me
Tim Chan sought expert advice on how to create a safe space for open conversation and still stand up for the LGBTQIA community.
Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images.
When TMZ first broke the news of Jussie Smollett’s alleged gay bashing last month, it sent shockwaves throughout the LGBTQ community and the country at large. Reactions poured in from everyone from Kamala Harris to Katy Perry, and even President Trump called the situation “horrible.” Thousands of others took to social media to voice their support for Smollett, while simultaneously rallying against a country so fraught with anger and divisiveness, that a racist, homophobic attack could occur in the middle of one of the nation’s busiest, and most liberal cities.
My immediate reaction to the news was shock and horror, saddened that an attack so bold and blatant could be carried out in 2019. Yet as details began to trickle in in the hours following the initial report, my shock turned to disbelief, and I began wondering if there was more to the story than what was being presented.
Though I have never been attacked, I have been bullied — an ankle-twisting kick during recess that I chalked up to junior high rough-housing; dismissive sneers cast in my direction in high school and college that kept me in the closet till well into my 20s; and that word, the f-word, tossed casually in my face on too many occasions to count. Even the remote possibility that someone could have staged a bias attack on himself, when so many people actually experience forms of these attacks on a daily basis, was enough to make me want to get to the truth.
On a group text with four of my friends (three of whom identify as gay and one who identifies as lesbian), I shared my frustrations with the investigation. “I’m not sure if I should say this,” I began typing, already aware of the implications of what I was about to say, “but I feel like there’s something shady about this whole thing.”
The reaction and rebuke from my friends was swift. “How could you even say that?!” one friend replied. “I’M DONE WITH YOU,” said another, in all caps. “This is not a discussion,” a third friend texted back.
And then, this: “You’re supposed to be a member of the LGBTQ community. I can’t believe you’re not standing up for your own people.”
Three weeks later, Smollett was charged with a felony, accused of filing a false police report to cover up an attack that cops allege was staged in order to boost his public profile, and to promote his career. In a bout of confusion, I felt momentarily vindicated, then immediately disheartened that I was even allowing myself to feel anything other than sadness for this whole situation. Was I wrong to voice my skepticism about the attack? Was I really betraying my own community, the one it took me so long to finally feel a part of, just for some “gotcha” moment in the end?
I hated hearing about what happened to Smollett, but I also hated that no one was willing to have a conversation about it. If his claims were valid, I thought to myself, we could figure out a way to voice our support for him and get the news out about the assault. And if his claims were debunked, I wanted to have a safe space to talk about why we thought he made the whole thing up in the first place. But as it turns out, it wasn’t a conversation my friends were willing to have.
“We are currently living in a very politically fraught time,” says Uri McMillan, Associate Professor of African-American Studies, English and Gender Studies at UCLA. “Identity politics has become especially potent in this moment, as those who are marginalized in our society are witnessing overt efforts to strip them of rights and limit their access to the 'American dream.' And in this particular milieu, there have been pernicious attempts to silence, target, and demonize people of color and LGTBQI-identified folks at the exact time.”
“The pressure to rally around Jussie Smollett,” McMillan offers, “was an explicit effort to push back against the recent rise in white supremacy. In some ways, it was a perfect storm — a way to both critique the racism that MAGA hats emblematize while also attacking homophobia.”
“And yet,” McMillan says, “I now wonder what our too-quick rallying reveals about ourselves, our desires, our fears, and our hopes.”
Oscar Wilde once said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” As officials continue to work to uncover the truth behind this ever-evolving story, here are three things I want my friends to know.
1. Believe victims
When Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson unveiled the charges against Smollett, he said he worried that, “hate crimes will now publicly be met with a level of skepticism that previously didn’t happen.”
The most recent available statistics from the Department of Justice revealed more than 7100 hate crime incidents in the U.S. in 2017, up 17 percent from the previous year. Of these incidents, 75% were motivated by race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation. And while hate crime hoaxes have been given attention due to Smollett’s alleged actions, a 2018 California State University-San Bernardino study found less than two dozen confirmed hoax cases in the country, dating back to 2016. In short, the chances of a hate crime victim telling the truth are undeniably strong.
Waddie Grant is the founding editor of The G-Listed, a blog that covers urban and LGBTQ culture. He says there is no question that any allegations of harassment or assault should be taken seriously. “For those who share identities as Jussie — Black, LGBTQ, Jewish or a mixture of the any of the aforementioned — and have been physically or verbally assaulted on the basis of identity, as I have during my youth, the seriousness of the hate-crime narrative should be believed in 2019,” Grant says.
Grant also hopes the same wave of compassion and empathy that was extended to Smollett immediately following news of his attack will be extended to those who aren’t in the public eye as well. “As a Black and LGBTQ advocate with a public platform, I see the rallying more frequently when the ‘victim’ is a celebrity,” Grant says. “I’ve noticed more silence, skepticism and judgement when the ‘victim’ is not famous, has no cultural or social popularity, or is not physically appealing to certain demographics.” That has to stop.
2. Be open to questions and debate
Sometimes the narrative that we want to follow doesn’t always play out the way we expect it to. And while the process of arriving at the truth can often be uncomfortable, we shouldn’t be afraid to question the facts and statements being presented, in order to draw out the most accurate and honest conclusions.
Jen Mattiola is an Los Angeles-based life coach whose work with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) focuses on how people can learn to manage and master their minds, so they can train themselves to reprogram the way they think about and respond to situations. Mattiola says the important thing is to start a conversation, and to listen when others have something to say. “When someone confides in you about a personal conflict or opinion, the best way to show support is by non-judgemental listening,” she says. “This means actively listening without offering suggestions, solutions, or advice. This will make that person feel supported and their feelings validated. Chances are, they are simply wanting to express their vulnerabilities or fears with you, and them sharing with you is a sign of trust. Asking clarifying questions is okay,” she offers, “but let the person have the opportunity to talk.”
Grant says asking questions also prevents us from jumping to conclusions too soon, or placing blame on innocent people. He cites the examples of Andrew McClinton, the African-American man who was arrested for vandalizing a Black church in Mississippi and trying to pin it on Trump supporters, and Yasmin Seweid, who claimed to be the victim of an anti-Islamic attack on a New York subway train, only to recant it days later.
And while my friends accused me of being a “bad gay,” countering a popular opinion or raising red flags isn’t always detrimental to a cause or community. In fact, experts say it’s often a lack of questions that can trigger the most damage.
“Efforts to protect one of your own can often lead to a failure to question why 'we' are rallying around someone in the first place,” McMillan says. “The denial of R. Kelly's crimes against black women and girls for decades is a perfect example of this; or the way the O.J. Simpson trial in the early 1990s unfolded. There is a tendency to prop up singular iconoclasts who are able to succeed, as a representation of the entire communities from which they emerge, especially communities of color. If they succeed or fail,” McMillan explains, “they reflect on us, or so the thinking goes.”
3. Just because you're part of a group, doesn't mean you have to walk in step all the time
While we should always seek to empower members of our own communities, things get problematic when “group-think” replaces dialogue or conflict. As someone of Chinese descent working in entertainment, I appreciated the representation of Crazy Rich Asians. Still, I don’t have a problem with saying that it wasn’t a particularly strong movie when it came to plotlines or character development. Supporting your community and having your own opinion aren’t always mutually exclusive.
“The mob mentality tends to favor absolutes,” Mattiola says. “but your personal credibility depends on your ability to be discerning and skeptical.”
In the case of Smollett, my friends saw my skepticism as a rejection of the LGBTQ community’s call for unity and justice, when in fact, we were all chasing the exact same thing.
“Systemic disenfranchisement engenders fear, and justifiably so,” McMillan says, “because that has been the case for many minority groups in the United States. Still,” he’s quick to add: “queer people are not a homogenous community, nor should we be.”
Says Grant: “I have always put facts before emotions, and have found it liberating to be myself and to subscribe to the truth and logic — even when I have been in the far minority and vilified because I did not follow the ‘you shoulds.’”
At the end of the day, he says, “There is less stress in subscribing to truth.”
Last week, Smollett appeared in court to be arraigned on his felony charge, and I texted our group thread to see what my friends thought about the new developments in the case. This time, their responses came in slowly, and were more measured. “If this is true, it really sets us back in helping real victims,” one friend said. “This whole thing has been upsetting,” texted another.
A third friend’s response: “It sounds bad for him but I’m waiting to see how it plays out in court. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty right?”
Smollett’s next court hearing is March 14.