The greatest tragedy of the Jussie Smollett saga would be if it discouraged anyone from coming forward to report a hate crime, according to leading LGBT anti-violence organizations.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation, which helped expand the federal hate crime law to include offenses motivated by sexual orientation, gender or disability, said 410 hate crimes have been documented since Smollett’s case came to light.
“While we are absolutely dismayed that somebody with such a high profile would fake a hate crime, we want to remind everyone that false reports are the exception, not the rule,” the foundation tweeted Thursday.
Cathy Renna, a longtime LGBTQ activist, said Smollett’s case could also give new ammunition to anti-gay groups looking to minimize the issue.
“The most striking thing about this entire situation is that the media has spent more time, more energy and more resources on a hate crime that may not have even happened than it has on the more than 400 real hate crimes that have been reported since Smollett’s case,” Renna told TheWrap.
“The community is frustrated and angry because our impulse is to believe those who come forward with incidents,” Renna added. “Those who are anti-LGBT and racist will be able to use this.”
But the Shepard Foundation said about two-thirds of all hate crimes go unreported.
On Thursday, police said the “Empire” actor had staged an attack because he was unhappy with his salary. In late January, the black and gay actor told investigators that two men attacked him while shouting racial and homophobic slurs and referencing “MAGA.” Police said it was all made up.
Smollett’s story initially seemed to shine a helpful spotlight on hate crimes, as stars including Ariana Grande, Shonda Rhimes, Ellen Page and Andy Cohen expressed support. Presidential candidate Kamala Harris publicly condemned the reported attack, calling it “an attempted modern-day lynching.”
“It’s unfortunate,” said Eliel Cruz, spokesman for the Anti-Violence Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group dedicated to ending hate crimes. “It takes a lot of courage to come forward. It could potentially discourage other people from reporting because they may not be believed.”
Now Cruz is forced to remind the public that Smollett’s case is an “anomaly.” The organization said several cases of violence against LGBTQ people have been reported since mid-January, and that none have received as much attention as Smollett’s.
Among the cases cited by the Anti-Violence Project: On Jan. 19, just 10 days before Smollett talked to police, a gay couple said they were brutally attacked for holding hands in downtown Austin. (The men suffered broken bones, lacerations and memory loss). Just eight days later, on Jan. 27, a black transgender woman was shot in Houston parking lot. (She survived). That same day, a 50-year-old man said he was jumped by four men and a woman outside a gay bar in Philadelphia. (The victim was sent to the hospital and treated for a head injury). Last week, a gay man living in Salt Lake City was punched after his assailant asked him if he was gay. The attack was caught on video, which has since gone viral.
According to a study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, the severity of the hate crimes has also increased in recent years. NCAVP recorded 52 reports of hate-related homicides in 2017 — the highest number ever recorded in more than two decades of collecting data.
“As we learn more details about Jussie’s arrest, we remain focused on the urgent fight against the very real issues of racism, homophobia, and hate violence,” GLAAD, the nation’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy group, and Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, said in a joint statement Thursday.
“FBI data shows that hate crimes are on the rise nationwide and that fact cannot get lost in the discussion around Jussie’s arrest,” the statement continued. “While Jussie’s situation is troubling and concerning, anyone who is a victim of hate violence should never be hesitant to speak out and share their stories.”
The statement came with statistics from the FBI, which show reported hate crimes in the U.S. rose 17 percent last year, the third consecutive year that such crimes increased.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Anti-Violence Project, which helps people who have experienced hate crimes, said in a statement: “The confusing and deeply unfortunate circumstances surrounding Jussie Smollett should not cloud the sobering facts about hate crimes in our nation.”
The center cited a recent study released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism that shows hate crimes in the country’s largest cities increased for the fifth consecutive year in 2018 — with Los Angeles receiving its highest number of hate-crime reports in a decade.
“Do not be distracted by Mr. Smollett’s alleged staged attack,” the center’s statement said. “Hate crimes, particularly against people of color and the LGBT community, are real and on the rise. These facts should alarm all of us.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing harassment or assault, contact the Anti-Violence Project’s 24-Hour Bilingual Hotline: 212-714-1141.