Black queer people were never #allJussieSmollett
One’s belief in how this story unfolded should never have been a litmus test for one’s care for Black queer people.
I want to start this off with a reminder that the police are never to be trusted—particularly when it comes to their version of a situation where harm has befallen a Black queer person (because of their explicit history of contributing to that harm, and of trying to cover it up). I want to start this with a prayer for Jussie Smollett’s healing, whether he was brutally attacked that 2 A.M. in Chicago or he lied about it, because it’s obvious he needs healing either way. And I want to start this with a prayer for the healing of the two Black brothers who were initially suspected of attacking him, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, too, given that they are also Black people who also experienced the trauma of an arrest and wide scale public distrust—just with much less concern for their well-being and much less resources to fight back.
At least these things I want, I can have. I also want for there to be no one who gets incarcerated for anything that has happened in this bizarre saga—because I know prisons don’t bring about healing—but Jussie has already been arrested and now faces up to 3 years. I want to write this without causing further distress to Black queer people who are too invested in Jussie’s story to feel anything other than that when challenged now.
And most of all I want every Black queer person to no longer desire to see ourselves in rich liberal celebrities so much so that we assume their motivations are our own, and their struggles are ours too, at our own expense.
I know I can’t have all of those things today, but I can work toward them. So this essay is me trying to do just that.
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I haven’t written anything about this situation previously. I’m not doing so here out of a belief that I’m now allowed because it has been proven that Smollett lied (again, I take the police’s word with a mountain of salt), but because the initial concerns that kept me from writing about it have since grown to monstrous proportions. Even if Smollett was telling the truth (and it is possible, however unlikely, that he will eventually prove this), the issues that arose from how this story was told and how it was embraced remain the same. And these are issues that never bring relief to Black queer people, which is what we should be trying to do.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe Jussie’s story. It was that, from the moment his story hit the lips of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, hit the pages of mainstream (read: white) LGBT organization’s statements and magazines, and was turned into hashtags (like #WeAreAllJussie), I saw how easily Black queer trauma was being commodified for the purposes of liberal elites and their agendas. I saw how willingly Black queer people played into this commodification, some out of a real fear that Black queer trauma would otherwise be erased. And I saw how that fear was being exploited to make sure other legitimate Black queer trauma stayed erased as well.
From the beginning, there were people who didn’t want to believe Jussie just because he was queer. There were people who didn’t want to believe Jussie just because he was Black. And we were supposed to spend all of our attention on these two groups so that any other people who felt resistance to a story that, if it wasn’t manipulative, was undoubtedly manipulated to benefit the liberal establishment, were written off too. Many of these latter people—some of whom, like me, were Black and queer themselves—just wanted their trauma acknowledged as well. They knew well the anti-Black, anti-queer harm rich liberal celebrities are capable of. They knew why this story took off, but Gemmel Moore’s did not. And they were silenced all the same to make room for Jussie and Jussie alone.
I saw the #WeAreAllJussie posts from folks who were never #AllGemmelMoore or #AllMichaelJohsnon. I saw Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris and Cory Booker using the story to shore up their Black and queer bonafides—two birds, one stone. And I saw endless posts on Instagram of pictures people had previously taken with the actor, wishing him to “get well soon”—but really they were wishing to display some sort of proximity to this person who was rich and famous enough to finally be trusted.
It was as if many of us thought that if we could just make others believe anti-Black, anti-queer violence against this rich, light-skinned, liberal celebrity, they would finally believe the violence that happens to other Black queer people too. But anti-Black, anti-queer violence is classed and colored, and both liberals and conservatives contribute to it, so putting one’s faith fully into this story could never turn out well for everyone. Anti-Black, anti-queer violence coalesces around the poor, the unambiguously Black, those whom politicians have no interest in saving, so this would never result in anything that saves those who need it most.
One’s belief in how this story unfolded should never have been a litmus test for one’s care for Black queer people. One’s trust in a single rich, light-skinned, liberal celebrity who (at the very least) allowed his story to be manipulated by forces that we know cause harm to Black queer people (“I’m the gay Tupac!” Jussie proclaimed to adoring fans after the alleged attack) should never have been conflated with one’s trust in Black queer survivors writ large.
As a survivor of sexual violence, I have long argued that “believe survivors” is a wrongheaded approach. I am not telling the truth just because I say I survived, and not telling the truth about this type of violence has dangerous consequences that should never be written off as a necessary evil in balancing scales—as white women throughout history have proven time and time again. If we take intersectionality seriously and recognize that even those marginalized in one way can be part of oppressive systems in another, no one automatically deserves our trust.
A more appropriate way to deal with he-said she-said situations where there is a very real power dynamic is to distrust whomever has demonstrated the power to shape the story in abusive ways, and sometimes that means placing trust in no one. Of course I distrust the police. But I also distrust rich, liberal celebrities (particular those who gain proximity to whiteness by being light-skinned—a proximity I know as a light-skinned person myself), who have proven time and time again that they will shape stories to their liking at the expense of everyone else.
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To invest in Jussie’s truth unquestionably today means that two dark-skinned, less well-off brothers (who may or may not be queer themselves) must automatically be liars. I saw a tweet defending Jussie after Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo testified against him that referred to the brothers as “underemployed,” and evoked their identity as bodybuilders to cast doubt on their story about what happened.
The demonization of their lack of resources and a negative focus on their bodies reinforces classist and colorist tropes about who is more likely to be the villain. Many of Jussie’s defenders may not have been so explicit in demonstrating their classist lens of this story, but this is inherently the other side of believing rich celebrities without question. Instead of defending all Black (queer) people from very real anti-Black conspiracies, we throw some under the bus for the other. And when money, status, skin color, and platform come into play, it’s far too predictable which ones that will be.
Just ask Steven Thrasher, who wrote a groundbreaking series for BuzzFeed on the story of Michael Johnson, a Black queer man whose dark-skinned features were used against him in an HIV criminalization case for the sake of white gay men, and is now spending nearly a decade in prison. “When I saw the images of the bare chested dark-skinned brothers I thought, ‘That’s Michael Johnson in the media, right there,’” Thrasher told me.
If we distrust the police narrative around this story, and we should, we should also understand distrust for the very person who went to the police because he trusted them so much he thought they would believe everything he said as a rich and powerful celebrity. We should distrust the liberal establishment’s narrative too, because it only benefits us if we, like Jussie, adhere to it while it continues killing us. And we should trust the stories of everyday Black queer people to be enough to define who we are, and what we struggle against. We do not need to prove ourselves or our trauma to anyone else, and we definitely don’t need rich celebrities to do it for us.