Chicago’s police chief is accusing”Empire” star Jussie Smollett of using the “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career” by paying two men to stage an attack on him last month.
The allegations concerning Smollett, who is black and gay, sparked an international avalanche of commentary, but one state representative who’s weighing in has more than a passing interest in the matter.
“I decided to finally tell this very deeply personal story because the reality is that hate crimes are real. Homophobia is real. Bigotry is real. And hate violence is on the rise against many groups. Anti-semitism is on the rise. Hate violence against transgender women of color is on the rise, especially in Florida,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said in a telephone interview Thursday evening.
Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is openly gay, spoke with us after he tweeted about his experience as a survivor of “senseless hate violence” when he was a University of Central Florida senior in 2003.
In a telephone interview Thursday evening, Smith recounted the evening 16 years ago when a keg party turned into a gay-bashing attack on him and his roommate, Heath Frank.
The attacker, identified as “Eduardo Alessandro Mongio” in court documents provided by Smith, was “lingering around” and “acting kind of weird” at the crowded party, Smith said.
Other witnesses later said they heard Mongio making homophobic remarks, but “I never heard any of that,” Smith said.
But at some point a bloodied Frank came back inside the apartment, Smith recalled.
“He was red in the face. He was crying. I’m like, Heath, what’s wrong? He said, it’s nothing. Let’s go. Let’s go,” Smith said.
But when they went outside, Mongio confronted Smith and started punching him in the head and face.
“I didn’t know what was going on. But I got banged up pretty bad. When the dust settled, everyone was telling me about how the guy was making all these homophobic slurs about our group, because hey listen, we travel in cliques. We queer people, we stick together,” Smith said. “I don’t remember if the guy was drunk or what his deal was but he started lashing out at . It was like a full-fledged gay-bashing.”
Smith, who was still trying to piece together the events of more than a decade-and-a-half ago, said the police were called and Mongio was arrested. Once in the cop car, according to the police report, Mongio threatened to “get that fucker” and repeatedly referred to Smith and Frank as “faggots.”
“But I remember, the next day, I was so down on myself. I was humiliated. I was embarrassed. It’s hard to describe the feeling that you have when you’ve survived hate violence and you’re not sure what to do with it, especially when you’re young. I was like, what just happened,” he said.
Former state Rep. Joe Saunders, who was one of Florida’s first openly gay legislators and who was one of Smith’s close friends at college, told Smith the campus was “stunned” by the attack.
Saunders quickly penned “his first press release” and organized a rally where students — including Smith, who later worked with Saunders at Equality Florida — demanded that the university update its non-discrimination policy to include LGBT students.
Mongio was charged with two counts of “battery, evidencing prejudice,” and disorderly conduct. Prosecutors later dropped the hate-crimes enhancer — which could have added another five to 10 years to Mongio’s sentence — and the disorderly conduct charge after he agreed to plea no contest to the battery charges. He was sentenced to 312 days in the Orange County Jail followed by a year of probation.
And Mongio’s sentence also required sensitivity training, an anger management course, and a letter of apology to Smith, according to the court record.
Smith said he “felt compelled to speak out” as the controversy around Smollett exploded.
“I don’t know what the outcome is going to become of the Jussie Smollett case. But I can already see there’s a narrative out there that hate crimes aren’t real. No. They are. And they’re on the rise. Especially with the election of Donald Trump, who wears hate for other groups on his sleeve,” he said.
Smith said he feels “like justice was served” in his case. But he knows that’s not every other survivor’s experience.
“Even though it hasn’t defined me as a person, it absolutely is part of my experience as an out gay man, as an activist, as a lawmaker who cares deeply about issues of fairness and equality,” he said. “I think that people who now know this about me, they understand why I’m such a passionate advocate for my community. It doesn’t define who I am but its part of my experience.”