50 Years of Queer Anger: Jussie Smollett and anti-blackness in the queer community

Pallas Gutierrez, Columnist

This is the third column in “50 Years of Queer Anger,” a series examining LGBTQ+ issues in the United States since 1969.

On January 29, Jussie Smollett, a black gay actor, was attacked in Chicago by two men in ski masks who yelled racist and homophobic slurs as they threw an unknown substance on his face and put a noose around his neck. Smollett is back at work in good condition, but the attack against him was an unwelcome reminder that homophobia and racism are still rampant in our society. While newer coverage addresses both the racist and homophobic aspects of the attack, initial coverage focused on just his sexuality — a reminder of the anti-blackness within the queer community.

The queer liberation movement took off in the early 1970s, right on the heels of the black civil rights movement. Despite the similar goals of the two movements (equality for marginalized groups), the two groups were often at odds with each other. Religious beliefs were sometimes divisive, as many black churches in the late 20th century were openly homophobic.

Black people were portrayed as more homophobic than white people, which made queer people speak out against black activists. The growing distrust on both sides put the movements, which could have potentially joined together, in opposition.

This made life very hard for those who fell at the intersection of being black and queer. Bayard Rustin, a black civil rights leader who helped organize the March on Washington, faced criticism from the public and other civil rights leaders because he was openly gay. Thus, Rustin often acted behind the scenes. President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Ken Jones actively worked to make the queer rights movement more diverse and was the first African-American chair of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration Committee, but he only received the role after tirelessly combating racism in the queer community and queerphobia in the black community.

James Baldwin was a prolific black gay writer in the mid-20th century who wrote extensively about race and sexuality. His second novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” was controversial due to homoerotic content, but Baldwin continued to address race and sexuality in his subsequent novels. Although initially a close colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., pressure from King’s advisors about Baldwin’s sexuality led to King distancing himself from the writer. As a result, despite his heavy involvement in the civil rights movement, Baldwin is mainly remembered for his artistic achievements instead.

Audre Lorde was a black lesbian feminist who advocated for what is now known as intersectionality. Like Baldwin, her activist achievements are often ignored in favor of her artistic writings, especially due to her exclusion from black, queer and feminist movements as a black gay woman.

These activists may have achieved acclaim for their work, but only after decades of combating prejudice within two separate communities. There are hundreds more people like them throughout history who have faced the inherent and specific discrimination unique to being black and queer people.

In 2017, Philly Pride unveiled a new rainbow flag with eight stripes. In addition to the traditional red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple, the Philadelphia flag includes black and brown stripes. After several community complaints of racism in gay institutions in Philadelphia in 2016 and early 2017, several gay bars and nonprofits were mandated to go through sensitivity training. The new flag was intended to be “a step toward inclusivity, to spur dialogue within the community and to impact the worldwide conversation.”

While some celebrated the recognition of non-white queer people, some pushed back against the redesign. People asked for a white stripe or claimed adding anything at all to the rainbow flag was disrespectful. The most tone-deaf response, however, was from people who claimed the existing rainbow flag was already a symbol of unity.

It’s true the rainbow flag is intended to be a unifying symbol for the entire queer community, but historically, queer people of color have not felt welcome under that rainbow. If adding two stripes would help make people of color feel more included and starts a dialogue about race in the queer community, then there is no reason not to add them. But while a flag symbolizes unity, it can’t fix the decades-old resentment and racism found in the queer community.

Another widespread example of anti-blackness in the queer community is the appropriation of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Phrases like “bae,” “sis” and “shade” originated in the black queer community but were slowly appropriated by white queer people and, more recently, white straight people.

While the commonality of these terms often goes unquestioned, the appropriation of AAVE is merely another example of how privileged groups take on characteristics of marginalized communities for image or profit, without giving any credit where it is due. This exploitation of black queer people may seem small, but it is emblematic of larger problems of anti-blackness within the queer community.

Despite the perception of the queer rights movement as progressive, people and leaders within the movement are just as guilty of anti-blackness as straight people. Progress has been made since the early days of queer liberation, but there is still much further to go. Philadelphia’s sensitivity trainings are a step in the right direction, but they are not enough.

White queer people must recognize how their experiences of being queer are radically different than those of queer people of color. They must actively elevate the voices that are so often erased because of systemic racism.

Campaigns by groups like the National Organization for Marriage, deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, as recently as 2009 were attempting to keep the queer and black rights movements separate by finding black spokespeople to speak against gay marriage and other queer rights, with the goal of provoking queer advocates into denouncing those spokespeople. Leaders of the queer community should reach out to leaders of color, because in the end the groups have the same goal: equality.

A. Pallas Gutierrez is a Communication first-year. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.