Justice Smith Is Ready to Let People In

For Pride 2020, GQ's Give It Up series invites influential artists and athletes to shine a spotlight on charities that are important to them. If you feel inspired—give!

Justice Smith is still learning how to open up. The 24-year-old Jurassic World and Pokémon Detective Pikachu actor has, until recently, kept a low profile, especially on social media, which he has never really been a fan of. “I used to have so much fear even just talking about my experience as a Black person,” Smith says over Zoom. “Now, so many Black people are sharing their stories. In some ways this is the liberation I was waiting for. It's not okay to just not say anything anymore.”

Earlier in June, Smith took to his Instagram with a call-to-action for the Black Lives Matter movement to be more inclusive of Black queer and Black trans voices. His post culminated with a declaration of his love for his boyfriend, the actor Nicholas Ashe, a decision he didn’t take lightly. As he wrote under the photo: “There is so much tragedy on the timeline these last couple of days so I added some photos of me and Nic to show some #blackboyjoy #blacklove #blackqueerlove.”

When we connect through our laptop cameras a few weeks later, Smith is wearing overalls and sporting bleached hair. (“I’m dressed like a tired gay dad,” he says.) He’d been thinking a lot about how to use his platform for good, and he tells me that his current preoccupation is pushing others to put in the work too. As part of GQ’s Give It Up series, Smith is partnering with G.L.I.T.S, Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society, an organization run by Black trans individuals to raise money for the LGBTQIA+ community on a global scale. “G.L.I.T.S. is raising money for sustainable housing for Black trans people who've recently been released from Rikers,” says Smith, who notes that they also have a “really incredible program called Operation Prom where they provide prom dresses and tuxedos for young trans people while simultaneously educating their parents about these stages in their life.” Part of his choice to partner with the organization, Smith explains, is to encourage people to think about the liberation of the Black trans community as “the liberation of the entire queer community and of the Black community.”

Smith was born in Anaheim, California, but has been spending this time away—near New Orleans, specifically—to reflect alongside his boyfriend. “When Nicholas heard about a protest near us, we jumped in the car,” says Smith. “When we got there, it was really interesting because there was a Black trans woman speaking to the crowd, and there was such an obvious separation between the way people were responding to the Black Lives Matter Movement and when this woman brought up Black trans and queer voices too. It was infuriating to watch.” Smith explains that attending the protest inspired his decision to talk about his relationship publicly for the first time. He wrote to his followers: “I want to reiterate this sentiment: if your revolution does not include Black Queer voices, it is anti-black. If your revolution is okay with letting black trans people like #TonyMcDade slip through the cracks in order to solely liberate black cishet men, it is anti-black.” The press was quick to paraphrase his words and repost photos of him and Nicholas, using headlines like “Justice comes out!” and “Justice is gay!”

Smith clarifies that he “intentionally didn't use the words coming out” in his post—and for good reason. “Technically, yes maybe, I came out in some ways, but I also did not ever put myself in [this socially-constructed closet] to begin with,” he says. “I was in a relationship with a woman at one point, so no one thought that I was queer, even though she knew and everyone in my life knew.” Smith is, in many ways, resistant to blanket labels. When I ask him for a working definition of “queerness,” he says that, to him, to be queer is simply to not identify as straight. “I’ve identified as so many different things and after having all of these moments and trying on different labels. Queer was the first word where I was like, "Oh that just represents vastness. It just means not what everyone wants you to be."

Coming out isn't a linear or inherently cinematic experience, and I tell him I was grateful when he tweeted that it wasn’t about him coming out, it was about other people coming in.

“It felt like I owed an explanation of my identity to everyone but I didn’t,” he says. “I still don’t. I feel like so much of the process of ‘coming out’ or whatever you want to call it is unpacking a series of internalized feelings.

“Regardless, though, I feel very happy that people know. I feel very comfortable in my skin right now. I still don’t like social media, but it's extremely useful, especially in times like these. I definitely feel a new urgency.”

When I ask Justice how he and Nick first met, he takes a moment to consider, and says he doesn’t know how much information his partner was comfortable sharing. So he pulls out his phone and calls Nicholas, who is in an adjacent room with his family.

“Hey, babe. So I'm doing my GQ interview,” he says. “It's super fun, super cool, we're vibing out. Can I talk about where we met or how long we've been together? Or do you want to keep that just between us? Do you want to come say hi?”

Smith asks me if I have a time limit; I say I don’t. “Okay,” says Smith. “He’s coming right now.”

When Ashe enters Smith’s room, I watch Smith’s body language immediately shift towards him. Ashe is 25 and best known for his role as a teenager named Micah West in Ava DuVernay’s drama series Queen Sugar. The pair met through a “mutual friend,” says Ashe, who “just knew we would at least make good friends.”

“And then we hit it off,” he adds, looking sweetly at Smith.

After spending so much time together, in such close proximity these past few weeks, their relationship has its ebbs and flows. I am, however, surprised by their answer when I ask them about their first real moment of conflict as a couple.

“We don’t fight ever,” Smith responds with a grin. “We’re perfect.”

“It was about our love languages,” Ashe interjects.

“It was about merging our love languages, and finding that middle ground because we both love in different ways, and just finding that together was our first fight,” says Smith. “We basically fought about the fact that we love each other so much.” The couple locks eyes until Smith snaps back to reality, like he suddenly remembered that he’s being interviewed.

They’re close-knit relationship clearly allows space for growth too. Smith says Ashe has taught him how to “be more open to other people's feelings,” while Ashe says that being with Smith has reminded him that life isn’t just about work. “Justice has repurposed my joy,” says Ashe. They contend that their relationship hasn’t dramatically changed since they went public on Instagram, but like many queer couples who begin their relationship behind closed doors, announcing their relationship has seemed to dissolve a great amount of anxiety. “We're just building something together,” says Smith. “It's very human. I'm finding the more I stand in my truth and the more I align myself with my authenticity, the happier I am.”

When I ask Smith about what excites him about the movement right now, he fiddles with his overalls while thinking about how to answer. “I just love that I'm a part of a community that's led by powerful people, specifically Black and brown trans women who again are the most vulnerable and yet are still spearheading these rebellions and revolutions,” he says. “I'm honored to just be in that space with them.”

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Originally Appeared on GQ