The Violent Reality of Being Black and Queer

Death threats and physical violence, in record numbers, plague Black queer and non-queer people alike.

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Jan 30 2019, 10:00pm

Photo by Getty Images

Jussie Smollett’s Tuesday morning attack was a shock. According to Chicago police, the Empire actor was approached by two masked men who got his attention by yelling racial and homophobic slurs. They then hit him repeatedly in the face, poured an unknown chemical substance on him, and put a noose around his neck before fleeing the scene. Smollett took himself to Northwestern Hospital and is said to recuperating at his home. The incident is being investigated by the Chicago PD and FBI as a hate crime.

Smollett, who came out in 2015, has been at the forefront of LGBTQ advocacy since, fighting for marginalized communities whose lives, like his, are at the intersection of Black and queer. He’s been vocal about the plight of Black gay men within the Black and LGBTQ communities, grappling with homophobia, racism, and exclusionary biases that often preclude them from the narrative of disenfranchisement in this country.

Smollett’s engagement with intersectionality shines a light on the very present danger of being Black and outwardly gay in a world that’s too often accepting of neither identity.

“It’s important to acknowledge that the hate Smollett faced as a Black gay man was a byproduct of society’s tolerance of racism and homophobia,” Ernest Owens wrote in an op-ed for HuffPost. “There is racial bias in how LGBTQ people are protected in mainstream society, as there is homophobia in how Black people are protected within their own community.”

Hate-related homicide victims have overwhelmingly been transgender women and queer, bi, or gay cisgender men of color. In 2017 alone, 60 percent of hate-related deaths in the US were of Black victims, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

For many, the most triggering aspect of the attack on Smollett was the use of the noose. Nooses represent a death threat specific to Black people and have a history rooted in racism, homophobia, and misogyny that is tethered to the history and fabric of this country. Chattel enslavement thrived by means of the killing, torturing, and policing Black masculinity and sexuality in ways that still make many, including those in the Black queer community, feel unsafe.

Terrorism of queer communities is not just limited to lynchings: It includes bombings, death threats, and physical violence that, in our current time, still plague Black queer and non-queer people alike.

“Many straight and cisgender [both Black and white] people—who are just as violent towards Black queer folks—find solace in the fact that they use different weapons [besides nooses] and intentions than those who attacked Jussie,” Ashleigh Shackelford, an artist in residence at SNaP Co, an Atlanta-based Black Trans-led advocacy organization, told Broadly. “But death is death, and expecting anyone to kill or shrink parts of their existence is violent, no matter what weapon is used. No one is safe under antiblackness.”

Symbols of lynching like nooses have been representative of white domestic terror since the late 1800s. But the history of lynching is not history at all—it is a current-day fear that Black queer folks still contend with. Black Twitter responded to Smollett's attack quickly, sharing perspectives on the danger of being publicly queer and Black in America.

Racism and homophobia, for many, don't act non-exclusively, but instead, stem from the same place. “The same hate that drives white supremacy is the same hate that fuels homophobia. It attempts to force us back into the shadows,” Preston Mitchum, an international policy analyst at Advocates for Youth, told Broadly.

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“It tells us that we aren’t enough. It sometimes makes institutional racism and heterosexism impenetrable forces onto our bodies, and harms us from receiving sustainable housing, employment, and schooling,” says Mitchum.

While the investigation behind who assaulted Smollett continues, the work to elevate the conversation about the dangers faced by Black queer people—and the required steps to protect them—are equally as vital. Shackelford believes this is already happening within queer circles, as a form of self-preservation.

“It is our duty as Black queer and trans folks to provide the protection and resources we’re intentionally denied," they said. "We deserve a world of possibility without bloodshed. We deserve to exist.”