Now that Jussie Smollett’s claim to being the victim of a racist and homophobic attack is unraveling, anti-hate groups across the country will have a harder time convincing people that Smollett’s allegedly fictional account is the sort of nightmare that happens to LGBT people and people of color every day.
Smollett, who is black and openly gay, appeared in court February 21 on felony charges of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report. The actor claimed for weeks that he was attacked by two men who poured bleach on him and placed a rope around his neck while yelling racial and homophobic slurs.
In court, prosecutors painted a different picture, charging that Smollett first fabricated a letter threatening him and mailed it to the studio where he plays a gay singer/songwriter on the show “Empire.” Prosecutors said that when that failed to call enough attention and gain him a bigger salary, he paid two men $3,500 to attack him on the street in a phony assault that lasted 45 seconds. (In interviews earlier this month, Smollett said he wanted the LGBT community to know that he bravely fought back against his attackers.)
Smollett maintains his innocence. He returns to court March 14 in Chicago, where he claimed the attack took place. If convicted, Smollett faces three years in prison. But whatever the legal outcome, the damage has been already been done.
When Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said in a news conference that Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” he could have added that the actor also made a mockery of the very real violence committed against LGBT people every day.
Actual hate crimes are on the rise across the country, particularly against the queer community. In November 2018, the FBI reported a more than 17 percent rise in hate crimes, an increase for the third consecutive year.
Although it is estimated that only 4.5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, they are targets of more than 16 percent of federally reported hate crimes. Blacks, too, suffer disproportionately. African Americans comprise only 13.4 percent of the population but are victims of 28 percent of hate crimes.
While the number of hate crimes in Chicago actually fell in 2017, they rose in most other major cities, including Washington, D.C., where such crimes nearly doubled from 2016 to last year. What’s even more startling is that nearly half of the hate attacks in the District last year were committed against LGBT people.
Hate crimes in the U.S. are considered to be substantially underreported, often because the victims feel they won’t be taken seriously by law enforcement. Indeed, right-wing news outlets are already running stories on “hate crime hoaxes” and “fake victimization” following Smollett’s claims.
While Smollett will have to answer for what increasingly appear to be falsehoods, his story gave many gay rights organizations a news hook to emphasize real physical and emotional trauma directed toward queer people.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, sites victims of such attacks prominently on its website. One is Dana Martin, a black transgender woman who became 2019’s first transgender homicide victim. The 31-year-old was found on January 6 in a roadside ditch in Montgomery, Alabama with fatal gunshot wound to the head, and her killer is still at large. As reported in the Bay Area Reporter last summer, Scott Long, an LGBT rights activist, was hospitalized after being brutally beaten while walking to a friend’s apartment in Oakland, CA.
These are just two of the thousands whose pain is trivialized whenever someone falsely claims to be the victim of an anti-LGBT hate crime. In future, real victims may be even more wary of reporting hate attacks for fear they won’t be believed. District attorneys may be more reluctant to charge perpetrators with hate crimes, which carry harsher penalties. And the next time a highly publicized gay bashing makes the news, the public just might turn a blind eye.
And that would be the real crime.
Elaine Herscher is a founder of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and a former reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered the LGBT community.