It seems like every day, there’s a new development in the saga that is the Jussie Smollett case.
On January 29th Smollett, an openly gay actor who plays an openly gay character on Fox’s enormously popular show Empire, claimed he experience an attack that left him doused in bleach with a noose around his neck. He claimed his attackers to be Trump supporters that shouted “This is MAGA Country!” while also yelling racist and homophobic slurs that will not be typed out here.
Though Chicago PD may have made anonymous claims that something about Jussie’s story “didn’t track,” by all accounts they still did their jobs and investigated Jussie’s account as a hate crime while considering him the victim. Things started to shift in the media around the time Smollett gave an oddly standoffish interview to ABC’s Robin Roberts.
Around that time, two Nigerian brothers were arrested, at least one of whom had appeared on Empire. The brothers were soon released because they began fully cooperating with Chicago investigators. They claimed Smollett paid them over $3,000 to stage the attack. Jussie has since hired a high-profile criminal defense attorney, refused to speak further with police, and has had his next scenes on Empire reduced from 9 to 4 over the next bloc of episodes.
*Let’s out exasperated sigh now that the summary is done.* Are you still with me? Did you skip to this part because you knew all the #EmpireDrama already? Good.
I have friends who are claiming (only half tongue-in-cheek) that this was a Grindr hookup gone wrong. That is to say, some kind of racially-motivated kink play gone wrong. The evidence does not point to this being something that started with that kind of activity. However, I do think this whole saga has been harmful for gays who want to share their own stories of trauma.
Social media creates the ultimate ‘blessing and a curse:’ stories like Jussie’s can be swiftly shared. And swiftly believed. Then swiftly questioned. Proper investigations tend to begin only after the public-at-large has already formed an opinion. Before social media, the opposite was true.
There are those still saying they believe Jussie, no matter what the investigation in Chicago is bringing to light. Then there are those that are casting him as the villain based on the new evidence from the Nigerian brothers. I think the way we should process these events lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps if Jussie meant to stage something, but the brothers took things to far. There could be responsibility all around and we just don’t know that yet.
Those that want to believe Jussie are holding to their own moral compass, asking themselves, “Who would abuse being a member of two minority communities for media attention?” Then there are those who are saying, “Of course he wants attention. He’s a no-name actor who’s failed to make a name for himself through his prominent roll a popular TV show. This was an act of desperation. Of course he faked it!”
When this is what the debate becomes, it takes away attention from the central issue: There are people out there who are not famous, but who experience very real violence for being gay, black, trans or a member of some other minority community. That’s the conversation we should be having. Instead, we’re following this story like it’s a James Patterson novel, casting villains and heroes.
If Jussie did fake his attack for attention, then he deserves to lose everything he built up to this point. You do not exploit your own community like this. What he has done, if indeed he’s the culprit here, is to take away the next person’s ability to have their trauma taken seriously. And, he’s given ammo to racists and homophobes. They can forever point to him and bolster their arguments for treating minority communities with inherent skepticism.
But, if in the increasingly-unlikely event that his claim is truly genuine, then we truly need to become introspective about what it is that has made us so skeptical of people’s traumas. It is important to weed out false stories because they hurt those of others who come forward with the truthful accounts. But until those whose job it is to do so suss out what is fact and what is fiction, we must always support those that come forward with their stories of trauma.