Stacey Long Simmons, director of advocacy at the National LGBTQ Task Force, vividly recalls the time, as a young college student, she was walking outside of campus and a group of white men slowed down and shouted, “N-word bitch go home.”
Simmons hails from Queens, N.Y., where she admits racist incidents did occur but being verbally attacked like that was a “shock to my system.” While the men harassed her for being a black woman she has no doubt that they could have easily swapped out the adjectives to harass her for being a black, bisexual woman.
“If I had been walking down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand at the time I’m sure it would have been you ‘black dyke B-word’” Simmons said. “I don’t think we ever really know why we get attacked. The point is for us to recognize that in the eyes of many we’re problematic no matter what point they enter into whether it’s the race lens, the sexual orientation or gender identity lens.”
It’s a reality that the black LGBTQ community faces every day but it came to the forefront when it was reported that “Empire” star Jussie Smollett suffered an allegedly homophobic and racist attack. At around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 in Chicago, Smollett was walking from a Subway restaurant when he alleges that two men dressed in black called him “Empire faggot n—er” to get his attention. The actor alleges that the attackers put his neck in a noose, poured “an unknown chemical substance” on him and ran away. Smollett also reported to police that the assailants yelled “MAGA country” during the attack. A few days prior to Smollet’s alleged physical attack, an anonymous letter was sent to Cinespace Studios where “Empire” is filmed. The letter read, “You will die Black fag” and contained a white powder, later identified by a HAZMAT unit as aspirin. Chicago police are currently investigating the incident as a hate crime.
David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, told the Blade that the LGBTQ black community is “surprised but not shocked” by the attack.
“One of the prevailing sentiments I continue to hear from black queer people generally is how frustrating it is that people seem to be surprised at this occurrence,” Johns says. “Black queer people are victimized every single day. I was just thinking about what we’ve experienced just this year reflecting upon Kevin Hart and the jokes about killing his gay son. I mourned the loss of the life of a young, black boy [Giovanni Melton] in Las Vegas because his father killed him suspecting that he was gay last year. Ed Buck, a white donor in Hollywood, is still walking around free as two gay black men have died at his household in the last year. Many of the media outlets that are covering Jussie’s story now didn’t even acknowledge that earlier this year there was a black trans woman [Keanna Mattel] that was murdered by a pastor in Detroit.”
These aren’t new stories for the black LGBTQ community but Smollett’s story was met with skepticism from some on social media who questioned why Smollett was outside getting food at such a late hour. Smollett also initially refused to hand over his phone to police to corroborate his and his manager’s story that they were on the phone with each other during the time of the attack. He has since handed over redacted phone records to police.
Simmons says she noticed people doubting his story as soon as it made the rounds on media outlets.
“It was just an immediate discounting. People saying ‘Who would be outside in Chicago at that time of night in the cold?’ It’s like people are out in the cold all the time. If you’re hungry you’re going to get something to eat. It’s almost as if people’s minds wouldn’t allow them to accept the fact that these types of violent attacks happen. I think there is a level of ignorance or refusal to accept the fact that these things happen on a day-to-day basis,” Simmons said.
It’s a reaction that Janaya “Future” Khan, Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder and campaign director of media, democracy & economic justice for Color of Change, is all too familiar with. Khan, who is black, queer and gender non-conforming, says that the race aspect of Smollett’s identity gave him reason to be questioned in the minds of some people.
“Black people historically are not believed when we say something has happened to us, especially when we say something has happened to us because we’re black. When you have to go to the same policing institutions that have historically not believed you, that criminalizes people that look like you disproportionally, that brutalizes people that look like you based on race, it’s a very impossible moment,” Khan told the Blade.
Although the LGBTQ community has had its own complicated and sometimes violent history with police, being black is an added layer of discrimination.
“I think people in society have been conditioned to not believe people who look like Jussie, who look like me,” Khan said. “It’s pretty disgusting. People also historically have not believed anyone in the LGBT community when they say these things have happened to them. But there’s a way that they’re able to assimilate into society around whiteness that you just cannot as a black person. The discrediting of Jussie, the need for a particular kind of irrefutable proof, is something that black people and people of color are very familiar with.”
Khan has their own personal story about being torn between two integral identities.
In July 2016, Black Lives Matter was invited to march in the Pride parade in Toronto. Khan and the rest of the group marched proudly in the parade using chants such as “Michael Brown say his name” and taking a moment of silence to sit in memory of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. In what proved to be a controversial move, the group declared to the crowd that they wanted police floats to be removed from the Pride marches and parade. Some in the crowd began to boo and social media became a firestorm of death threats toward Khan.
“I can tell you as someone who lives as a black person and also identifies as non-binary and queer some of the worst kinds of malice I’ve experienced as a black person have come from the LGBTQ community and it feels like a betrayal,” Khan says. “Now if you’re a black person police continue to brutalize our community and historically that’s also been true of the gay and lesbian community. Stonewall was a riot and it happened because police were brutalizing the LGBTQ population. Somewhere along the line because more seats at the table increased there’s a huge tension point because police at Pride made people of color and black people within the LGBTQ community incredibly uncomfortable. A lot of the contradictions and a lot of the biases and racism really came to a head.”
Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde famously argued that, “There is no hierarchy of oppression.”
“Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black,” Lorde wrote in 1983.
Simmons agrees that trying to separate identities isn’t helpful to make progress.
“It’s almost as if the majority of the country refuses to acknowledge the racism that black people experience and black people who aren’t as LGBTQ-affirming as we would like them to be want you to not discuss what you experience as a LGBTQ person because they feel like you’re trying to privilege your LGBTQ identity over your black identity. That’s asking people to carve themselves up in many ways that isn’t fruitful or productive,” Simmons says.
Protection for both black people and LGBTQ people has become an increasing concern over the last couple of years as hate crimes are on the rise.
There was a sharp spike in hate crimes that coincided with the 2018 midterm elections, according to new figures released last week. From October to December 2018, hate crimes in LA rose more than 31 percent, compared to the same period a year before, with African American, LGBTQ, Jewish and Latino communities the most frequent targets. California as a whole saw an 11 percent increase, with 56 percent of crimes being racially motivated and 22 percent directed toward the LGBTQ community, with the sharpest increase in hate crimes against minority trans women. California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reports that hate crimes have also increased in big cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
As more hate crimes are reported, both Khan and Simmons say they wish black transgender women were given more media attention as their lives become increasingly at risk. Khan notes that as transgender women of color have become more visible on television with shows like “Pose” and activists such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, the reality of trans women of color who do not have access to fame or money is often bleak.
What’s the reason for this increase in hate crimes? Khan said it’s related to the Trump administration.
“I think bigots and racists are emboldened. They have found a home and community for themselves that no longer requires hiding on the internet. White supremacists are organizing,” Khan said. “They’ve always existed in America they just are no longer in the underbelly of America anymore. We really need to be confronting that reality that these groups of people will exist far beyond the Trump administration’s rule and they exist far beyond the policies that we can fight. There is something far deeper and darker and more insidious in this country.”
Hope isn’t lost. Khan encourages people to vocalize their beliefs and to “come out of the closet as intersectional feminists, abolitionists, freedom fighters and revolutionaries.”
For Simmons, it’s all about allies showing an interest in learning about the issues the black LGBTQ community faces.
People just have to be willing to take the time.
“If you can learn how to cook a new recipe you can learn how to understand society as it is now and figure out how to be an ally to the different issues that communities of color are grappling with right now,” Simmons says.
(Karen Ocamb contributed to this report)