Editor’s note (2/21): Following the publication of this post, Smollett was arrested on February 21 by Chicago police “on suspicion of filing a false report about” the alleged assault.
The threat of violence and harassment is nothing new for those in the LGBTQ community, particularly those who are trans or people of color. We know that our safety is at risk when we hold hands in public; queer sex workers know they risk their lives just by going to work; trans women of color know that they could be killed at any time just for existing in public. The list goes on. But after two reports of high-profile queer people being beaten or harassed for their identities in the past week, it seems like everyone else might finally be waking up to the reality that their LGBTQ friends and family are simply not safe.
In the early hours of January 29, two people reportedly physically attacked Empire actor Jussie Smollett -- a gay Black man -- while “yelling out racial and homophobic slurs towards him,” according to police. And on January 30, anti-trans so-called “feminists” barged into a meeting and recorded themselves repeatedly harassing and misgendering high-profile trans activist and author Sarah McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Smollett’s attack has been significantly covered in news media, and rightly so. But there is also Candice Elease Pinky, the Black trans woman who was shot in a Texas gas station parking lot on January 24, and Dana Martin, the first reported trans woman to be killed in the United States in 2019. According to HRC, there were “at least 26 transgender people fatally shot or killed by other violent means” in 2018. And in 2017, there were “a total of 52 reported anti-LGBTQ homicides,” according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP); that number reflected a staggering 86 percent increase in single-incident reports from the previous year. This violence is most frequently targeted toward trans women of color, but even homicides of queer cisgender men went up from four to 20 between 2016 and 2017 -- a fivefold increase.
But many Americans who are LGBTQ allies had no idea. In 2018, Media Matters published a yearlong study of TV news coverage of those 52 homicides in 2017, and what we found shows why Smollett’s attack may have been such a wake-up call for so many: The media was barely touching these stories. Throughout a year of coverage, seven networks discussed anti-LGBTQ violence for less than 40 minutes total -- and a quarter of that discussion came from Fox News, which regularly traffics in anti-LGBTQ animus.
And it’s not just physical violence that we should be talking about. The majority of LGBTQ Americans, like McBride, “have experienced some form of harassment or discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.” A 2017 Harvard study put numbers to it:
Regarding individual forms of discrimination, a majority of all LGBTQ people have experienced slurs (57%) and insensitive or offensive comments (53%) about their sexual orientation or gender identity. A majority of LGBTQ people say that they or an LGBTQ friend or family member have been threatened or non-sexually harassed (57%), been sexually harassed (51%), or experienced violence (51%) because of their sexuality or gender identity.
During Smollett’s attack, the assailants reportedly yelled, “This is MAGA country.” This sentiment should not be a surprise; it has come straight from the top. President Donald Trump has regularly used his office as a platform to bully and demean others, and his followers have become emboldened. Bullying is increasing; right-wing extremists are circulating liberals’ private information “to encourage harassment or violence”; and right-wing terrorism remains the biggest national security threat. All this while, as trans advocate Brynn Tannehill explained, right-wing media have been inciting violence against transgender people by demonizing them as a threat to women and children as well as U.S. national security, even sometimes hinting that violence is “an appropriate response to encountering transgender people in public.”
But there is another group of people who claim to be liberal and feminist yet also pose a direct threat to the LGBTQ community. “Trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” also known as TERFs, are anti-trans activists who claim that transgender people threaten the safety of cis women, and they are behind the targeted harassment and misgendering of Sarah McBride.
TERFs have worked for years to dehumanize transgender people and to exclude trans women from female spaces and the broader movement for women’s equality, and they have increasingly cozied up to the right to do so. On January 28, just days before two TERFs harassed McBride on video, the right-wing Heritage Foundation hosted a panel of anti-trans activists “from the Left” to argue against a bill that aims to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in current nondiscrimination laws. Introducing the panel, vehemently anti-trans researcher Ryan T. Anderson made it clear that combating trans equality is a value the right shares with TERFs, and they are willing to work together despite their differences on other issues. Heron Greenesmith, researcher at the think tank Political Research Associates, described the alliance between the right and TERFs to NBC News:
“They are capitalizing on a scarcity mindset rhetoric … saying there aren’t enough rights to go around, and therefore we must prioritize cis women over everyone else,” Greenesmith said, referring to nontransgender women. “That’s right out of the right’s playbook, when they say, ‘Let’s prioritize citizens over noncitizens, let’s prioritize white people over people of color.’”
Anti-trans harassment is another piece of the right-wing playbook that TERFs have capitalized on. The two TERFs who interrupted McBride during a private meeting -- Posie Parker and Julia Long, who identifies as a lesbian -- repeatedly misgendered her on video, describing her as “male,” and pushed myths about trans-inclusive facilities being a safety risk for cisgender women. According to PinkNews’ report, Parker had also been at the Heritage Foundation just days before its panel, though she denied involvement with the January 28 event.
The attacks on Smollett and McBride should serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the country. Black queer folk, transgender people, queer immigrants, and those at the intersections of these identities have been living with this fear and pain for years, and it has shown no sign of getting better. The right has been emboldened to enact violence and harassment against the LGBTQ community, and it is actively trying to fracture our community by teaming up with TERFs. In fact, this alliance has given this strategy a name: “divide and conquer.” One anti-trans activist said, “If you separate the T from the alphabet soup, we’ll have more success.”
But we will not be fooled, and we will not be divided. Queer equality and liberation are nothing if they are not intersectional. As the last week has shown, if one of the community’s most beloved actors can’t walk home without experiencing racist and homophobic violence, and one of our most effective advocates can’t go to work without being targeted for harassment, then none of us is safe.