Two years ago my life was threatened. I had just parked outside of my South Los Angeles apartment, back from a morning trip to the gym. With a fresh gel manicure, I had on highlighter-orange shorts that hit mid-thigh, a light blue tank, and black sneakers. As I walked to the gate from my car, a man walking his rottweiler began walking toward me. I sped up, readying my keys.
As I opened the gate, he called out, “Ayo blood! Take that faggot shit somewhere else. We don't do that gay shit here.”
I slammed the gate behind me.
“You can ignore me if you want faggot,” he said, steadily approaching. “Next time I see you imma sock you in your fucking face.”
I sped off into my apartment, bypassed my roommate and his friend, and took a shower. Though I wasn’t physically assaulted, I was shaken. It was one of the first times that I actually feared for my safety.
Upon hearing the news that Jussie Smollett faced a homophobic and racist attack Tuesday in Chicago, I was brought back to that same emotional place. Sitting in my bed, tears rolled down my face, prompted, once more, by a stark reality, that while being Black, LGBTQ+, and visible is a revolutionary act, visibility alone doesn’t protect us.
Reports say that Smollett, who had just returned to Chicago from New York to film Empire, left his apartment around 2 a.m. to get something to eat from Subway. Upon being recognized as “that faggot Empire n*****?,” sources reportedly said to TMZ, Smollett was assaulted by two men who poured bleach on him and put his head in a noose. Police confirmed that Smollett said his attackers yelled "MAGA country" as they attacked him. Police also told Out over the phone Tuesday night that they currently have no description, including the racial identity or gender, of the attackers.
Still, much of the online support directed at the actor-singer who came out as gay on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2015 has rightly pointed out how Donald Trump’s vile, racist behavior has emboldened seemingly-nascent white supremacist attitudes countrywide. But what we have on our hands is about more than how divisive our country continues to be around race. Smollett is Black and gay and known worldwide as both. He was attacked with the intersection of those identities in mind.
Many people have been duped into believing that life for LGBTQ+ people is better than ever. With the legalization of marriage equality and shows like Pose on television, perhaps that’s so. But I’d rather not ignore the very real experiences of countless members of our communities who at minimum would note, to quote Langston Hughes, that life ain’t been no crystal stair. And while some LGBTQ+ people claim not to “see color” and some in the Black community believe one’s queerness is second to one’s race, Black queer people still must bear the brunt of racism and homophobia and transphobia.
Yet, we’ve been taught that visibility is one of our greatest weapons in the fight for equality, respect, and liberation. Mantras like “I’m Black and I’m proud,” or “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’d like to say hello,” have been used to encourage us to stand unapologetically in our identities, to claim space, and to assert our humanity. Surely it’s necessary in a world that would rather us not. But for every closet we step out of, a target appears on our backs, and the Blacker we are and the more visibly queer we are, the greater our chances of having to defend our dignity.
Each day I wake, I stare in the mirror just long enough to muster the energy necessary to leave my house, the audacity necessary to live out loud, and the wherewithal to know the potential dangers that come with it. Nevertheless I persist, very much aware that because I find no other option but to be my most authentic self in public, someone might want to teach me, and by proxy those like me, a lesson. I’m sure that’s what Smollett’s attackers thought.
But this not to say that one shouldn’t be out and proud. Rather, it’s a call to the broader Black and LGBTQ+ communities to fight for Black LGBTQ+ people, especially those trans and gender nonconforming, as fervently as we fight for you. Because visibility alone won’t protect us, and it is not until we are free that you are free.