Continuing saga of Jussie Smollett

  • by Victoria A. Brownworth
  • Tuesday February 26, 2019
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"Empire" actor Jussie Smollett. Photo: ABC-TV
"Empire" actor Jussie Smollett. Photo: ABC-TV

Queer Americans don't make headlines often, and we rarely get TV news coverage. We may represent a large and diverse minority, but when we're in the news it's because one of us either broke some ground as the first LGBTQ something, or because something bad happened to one of us. LGBTQ Americans are invisible to most news media, which is why this newspaper and others like it continue to be so vital for our community.

That has never been more apparent than while the Jussie Smollett story has been a lead news item on every network and tabloid outlet. The last time anything queer got so much MSM hype was when 49 LGBTQ people were murdered and 53 others wounded as they danced at Orlando's Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016.

At press time as we write this, we are watching Keith Boykin arguing with Erin Burnett on "Out Front with Erin Burnett" on CNN about Jussie Smollett. Burnett, whom we love for her refusal to back down on anything Trump, is applying the same tactics she uses against the right against Boykin.

It's not working, but it sure is awkward. But as we watched, we felt empathy for Boykin because he is many of us right now as he argues that Jussie Smollett is innocent until proven guilty, and he wants to reserve judgment until all the facts are in.

At 26, Boykin was an aide to Pres. Bill Clinton and the first openly gay black man to work in any administration's inner circle. Boykin is the author of several books on black, gay issues, has a law degree from Harvard and is a weekly contributor to CNN with a show of his own on BET. Boykin has also been friends with Smollett for eight years. The most Boykin could say was that if it were true that the Smollett incident was indeed a hoax, it would be reprehensible.

What Boykin did not say was that black LGBTQ people are brutally attacked, maimed and even killed in America every year. There is an actual epidemic of violence against black queer people, and that is never a headline outside of queer news media like the B.A.R.

Boykin should have said that. He should have named some names. He should have named Sakia Gunn, who didn't get the national vigils, media attention and hate crimes legislation named after her like Matthew Shepard did because she was a 15-year-old black butch lesbian who was stabbed to death for being black and gay in public.

Boykin should have mentioned the epidemic of murdered black trans women in America. Boykin should have mentioned the FBI's own hate crimes stats, which detail quite horribly and vividly how violent people are toward black gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer people in America. Since 1995, black Americans have been the victims of 66% of all racially motivated hate crimes, according to FBI data collected from local law enforcement agencies. Crimes against LGBTQ people are up 17% since Trump took office. Of all the hate crimes committed against black and queer people in America since 2010, only 100 have been prosecuted at the federal level. Boykin should have used his platform to tell our stories, because that is what these platforms are for.

We covered the Smollett case as a news story for another publication, and also wrote an op-ed piece about it when the story first broke. We have come out strongly in support of Smollett on Twitter to our 78,000 followers. We have said on more than one occasion on social media that the Chicago Police Department has always treated Smollett more like a suspect than a victim.

We're not going to walk any of that back. What we said was appropriate at the time, and however this story devolves, as a black gay man in America, Smollett is still a victim of the oppression LGBTQ people — especially black LGBTQ people — face every day, and the way he has been treated since the alleged attack on January 29 has only served to underscore that fact.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who is also black, expressed his outrage over Smollett's alleged deceit, calling Smollett "shameful." Johnson called Smollett a "troubled young man who resorted to both drastic and illegal actions."

Yet we have watched literal hours of TV news and news analysis detail the long history with the CPD of thuggifying black victims. The same police force that covered up the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald for 13 months doesn't get to claim victim status in the Smollett case, however it shakes out.

And the facts are, Boykin is right: Smollett is due the same innocent-til-proven-guilty status that all the police officers who have beat and shot unarmed black men and boys in America have received. Why was he given $100,000 bail for "disorderly conduct" and "filing a false police report?" Filing a false report can be treated as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the choice made by law enforcement in a particular jurisdiction. At most a defendant would be sentenced to a fine and up to three years in prison.

The two brothers who allegedly worked with Smollett to perpetrate the hoax have not been charged, which seems unusual if Smollett is being charged.

Does no one remember Olympian Ryan Lochte and the international incident he created? During the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Lochte, the second most medaled male swimmer in Olympic history, told NBC, which was airing the Olympics, that he and fellow swimmers were robbed at gunpoint in a taxi by Latino men with police badges while returning to the Olympic Village from a party. But prosecutors said Lochte invented the story to cover up the swimmers' vandalism of a gas station and an ensuing confrontation with security guards. The confrontation was captured by surveillance cameras at the gas station. Lochte later acknowledged that he was intoxicated at the time of the incident, and that his behavior led to the melee.

Nothing happened to Lochte. He was whisked out of Brazil by the U.S. State Department's intervention and protected by the U.S. Olympic Committee. He got a 10-month suspension from professional swimming. Nine days after the Rio Olympics ended, ABC announced Lochte would be a participant on "Dancing with the Stars." He lasted a full eight weeks, finishing in 7th place. Last month Lochte was on CBS' "Celebrity Big Brother." No one ever said Lochte was responsible for people not reporting assaults.

Yet the Chicago Police Department wants Smollett in jail? If Smollett did actually perpetrate a hoax — and the jury is indeed still out on that conclusion — how is it different from what Lochte did? Other than Smollett being black and gay, as opposed to white and straight?

Turning Smollett, who still declares he's innocent, into a criminal doesn't change the facts of what happens to black queer people in America. We saw newscast after newscast after tabloid TV show refer to Smollett's one arrest in 2007 for DUI. That's the sum total of his "criminal" background.

We watched the Robin Roberts interview on "GMA" with Smollett. If he was lying, he was doing Emmy-level acting. On the Feb. 21 episode of "GMA," Roberts, who came out as a lesbian on New Year's Eve 2014, said, "This touches all the buttons. It's a setback for race relations, homophobia, MAGA supporters. I cannot think of another case where there is this anger on so many sides, and you can understand why there would be."

On "GMA," ABC News chief legal affairs anchor Dan Abrams informed Roberts that her interview with Smollett will likely be used as significant evidence in the ongoing investigation.

Roberts explained to the "GMA" audience about her interview with Smollett, "At the time, police officers were saying that his account was consistent, it was credible, and that he was being cooperative." Roberts explained that the interview aired before new details of the story were revealed.

For his part, Smollett continues to proclaim his innocence, and his attorneys say they intend to mount a vigorous defense. Smollett's attorneys released a statement that said in part, "Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system. The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr. Smollett, and notably, on the eve of a mayoral election. Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing."

Don Lemon, the only out black gay male news anchor on TV, made the point that the right was using the Smollett case to deflect from their own culpability in stoking hate. He also said they would use the Smollett case to claim there was no violence being perpetrated against minorities by Trump supporters, even though the statistics say otherwise. "Sean Hannity's going to eat Jussie Smollett's lunch every single second. Tucker Carlson is going to eat Jussie Smollett's lunch every single second, the president of the United States is going to eat his lunch," Lemon said.

On Feb. 21 Trump tweeted, "@JussieSmollet - what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA"

Trump's tweet was written with peak outrage, like Charlottesville, the Muslim ban, the trans military ban, the rollbacks on gay and lesbian access to anti-discrimination lawsuits by the Trump DOJ, the references to black athletes as "sons of bitches" and so many other racist and homophobic things haven't transpired within the administration itself since Trump's Inauguration.

Police Superintendent Johnson, as he chided and defamed Smollett, asserted that Smollett was (single-handedly) going to make it harder for victims of hate crimes to report. But the CPD again has its own bad-faith record on this issue, and it doesn't begin and end with Laquan McDonald.

Johnson could have noted the facts, well-known to law enforcement, of the most recent FBI report on hate crimes in 2017. If he was so concerned about reporting, he could have not only cited that report but made a strong declaration that his department wants victims to come forward.

Johnson did the opposite, putting the onus entirely on Smollett in a nationally televised press conference that was aired both in real time and re-aired repeatedly on network as well as CNN and MSNBC.

Yet those facts — again, not MSM headlines because of who the victims are — speak volumes about what is happening to us in America under Trump. According to the FBI report, the most common bias categories in single-bias incidents were race/ethnicity/ancestry (59.6%), religion — predominantly anti-Semitic (20.6%), and sexual orientation (15.8%). In addition to the 7,106 single-bias incidents reported last year, there were also 69 multiple-bias hate crimes reported.

Another 2018 report by California State University at San Bernardino that never made any TV or other MSM headlines asserts that "since federal record-keeping began, race was the most common category, constituting 57% of all hate crimes, with African Americans being the single most targeted group at 28.4%," and "the next most frequent targets involved sexual orientation at 17.6%."

All those percentages are far greater than the demographics for those groups: Black Americans are only 13% of the population, LGBT around 10%. Additionally, members of both groups have complicated relationships with law enforcement, who have long treated both groups as suspects rather than victims.

The husband of one of our closest friends lost an eye in a hate crime attack a few years ago. It was an horrific assault and forever altered both their lives. Hate crimes against LGBTQ people happen every day in America. Whether Jussie Smollett was the victim of an attack or not, America's queer and black lives are indeed under assault. And that's what the media and others attempting to shift responsibility cannot be allowed to forget.

While the Smollett case was unfolding, we were streaming Veena Sud's Netflix original series "Seven Seconds." The 10-episode story was nominated for a plethora of awards and won several, including an Emmy for Regina King.

It's a stunning, gutting, riveting series. It debuted during Black History Month in 2018 and we screened the first episode, but never got around to watching the entire series because, quite frankly, we knew it would be an exercise in witnessing of America's racist and homophobic core, and we weren't sure we were up for it. We weren't wrong: "Seven Seconds" is a brutal tale with scenes you will want to look away from, but must not.

We can't argue strongly enough for this limited series, which details the killing of a black teenager by police. It has a strong gay storyline and could not be more "ripped from the headlines." We don't want to give away any spoilers, but it is a superlative series, with all the performances being incredibly strong, particularly King's and Russell Hornsby's as the parents of the teen.

The way the story unfolds is as involving as it is stunning. The meaning of the title is not revealed until the last episode, but when it is, it will take your breath away.

"Seven Seconds" is, in some respects, a coda on the Jussie Smollett story. A must-see series for Black History Month or any other time.

WGN has aired some superb Canadian series in recent years, and "Pure," a thriller about drug dealing in Mennonite country, is new and awesomely good. "Pure" is a look inside a cloistered community and how worlds collide. It's a fresh take on both sides of the drug drama, with elements of "Breaking Bad" and "Queen of the South." "Pure" is powerful and highly compelling, with stellar, understated performances. With A.J. Buckley, Peter Outerbridge, Rosie Perez and Alyson Hannigan. Outerbridge is particularly chilling as the villainous Mennonite drug lord, Eli Voss.

L and back

"The L Word" aired its last episode on International Women's Day, March 8, a decade ago. Ilene Chaiken's (currently "Empire") series changed a bazillion lesbian lives with its tales of lesbian love, drama and ordinariness in West Hollywood and environs. We had never seen anything like it. Lesbians had never been centered before. "The L Word" was a watershed.

Looking back on the groundbreaking series, it's easy to file complaints from our current state of wokeness: class and race issues were treated haphazardly, there was some biphobia, trans characters were played by non-trans actors. Yet despite those problems of the early 2000s, the series remains a touchstone for millions of women who came of age watching Chaiken's groundbreaking tale of lesbians we loved (Bette and Tina), lusted after (Shane and Papi) and even loathed (sorry, Jenny) as they tried to figure out their lives over coffee and trips to The Planet.

The six seasons were mesmerizing: there were group-viewing nights for those who couldn't afford Showtime, and really, none of us will ever forget Shane (Katherine Moennig). Fast-forward a decade, and "The L Word" is coming back. Not a re-boot, but a next chapter, a sequel. This time race and class will get better treatment, bisexuals will be respected, trans people will be played by trans actors, and some of the old faves will be back, as well as a retinue of new characters played by new actors.

According to Showtime, "Original series stars Jennifer Beals, Katherine Moennig and Leisha Hailey all will be back to reprise their roles" in the new episodes, along with "a new generation of self-possessed LGBTQIA characters experiencing love, heartbreak, sex, setbacks and success in Los Angeles."

Beals, Moennig and Hailey will executive-produce the series, as will Chaiken. Marja-Lewis Ryan ("The Four-Faced Liar"), who has said in interviews she moved to Los Angeles to pursue life in "The L Word" lane, is the new showrunner.

According to Gary Levine, president of entertainment at Showtime, "Marja has brought her unique and contemporary vision to 'The L Word' and blended it beautifully into the fabric of Ilene's groundbreaking series. This revered show was both entertaining and impactful when it originally ran on Showtime, and we are confident that our new version will do that and more in 2019."

You had us at "Moennig will reprise her role as Shane."

So for the demonizing headlines as well as the scripted stories of our real LGBTQ lives, you really must stay tuned.