Antoine Dodson has been accused of "turning rape into a joke," and before his viral video fame, he survived sexual abuse and homophobic bullying. But he's not letting any of it get him down, he told me recently.
Antoine had no way of knowing that when he gave a fiercely indignant interview to a local Alabama TV station, it would lead to a chart-climbing song on iTunes, an Antoine Dodson Halloween costume, or an endorsement deal for an iPhone app. But he's trying to be strategic about his message of supporting sexual assault victims, he said in a recent interview. Also, some words for his critics: "They really can bite me. For real."
He denied that he is a pawn or being exploited for minstrelry-style mockery. "I know the media just doing their jobs, but I am sick and tired of the media making this [into], oh, we're so poor, we're stupid and slow, none of have degrees or education. No." He was working towards an associate's degree, taking courses in management and business, which he said came in handy when he was figuring out which of all the offers to trust.
"I can basically differentiate who I do and do not want to work with," he said. "I'm slowly becoming an expert.... Now I could basically just look at you and say, Oh, no, you're in it for the wrong thing."
His sister was initially annoyed that her attack became all about him, particularly since the perpetrator hasn't been caught, but Antoine said that the new opportunities for the family have helped her come around. They moved out of the Lincoln Park projects the very same night, and are now renting, using the proceeds from Antoine's fame until they find a place to buy. Antoine is going to live on his own. "I need my space," he said.
He's also faced a backlash from his former neighbors in Lincoln Park, who say he doesn't represent them. "I think it has something to do with my sexuality," he said. "Because I'm queer and fabulous."
And to critics who think he's just in it for the fame (he's also working on a book, a dictionary of his own phrases, as well as an album) Antoine says, "If I stay in the limelight, I'll really be able to get my story out. Performing at the Hip Hop Awards was so that I could stay hot, and if I stay hot and fresh than people will get the message." (Also: however unusual his point of entry, why shouldn't he get to cash in on his personal appeal when there's an audience for it?)
He says he makes sure to stay on message in interviews now, talking about his message of support for sexual assault survivors. It was that determination that led to the sex-offender registry app donating 5 percent of its proceeds to RAINN.
"We want to let people know, yes, we are survivors of sexual abuse," he told me. "Because a lot of our fans, they're asking us, how do we deal with this. How are we just these strong people that could just sit up there and take something like this. I'm like, 'No, we went through a lot to get here.'"
It's been difficult for him at times to relive his experiences being abused by a family member and not being believed — at one point, his voice broke — but he said, "Now I'm at my strength point. Now I can do anything. I can talk about it without choking up, because I need my strength to help somebody else."
I mentioned to him that a striking aspect of the video was the sheer resignation, mixed with frustration, that he and his sister showed in the face of a terrifying crime.
He chuckled. "Well," he said, drawing out the words as he did in the video, "Obviously..." It wasn't clear whether it was an intentional reference. He said that growing up in the South Side of Chicago had inured his family to violence.
"We probably would have reacted crazier had Santa Claus come down in our house on Christmas."
It's what made that video about more than just Antoine himself — his family's experiences of safety and the justice system mirror that of far too many people like him, including people of color, residents of public housing, sexual assault survivors, and queer people.
And it's not like fame has changed that much when it comes to getting the system to work for victims. Despite having the DNA of the perpetrator, progress on the investigation has been slow. "I feel like I'm in a race with a turtle," Antoine complained. They've now been told the investigation might take two years. That's despite the fact that the perpetrator, or a copycat, has actually returned to his own ways in the same location, Antoine said.
Men talking about being survivors of sexual assault, Antoine pointed out, face the added stigma of homophobia "At one time I was like that because I cared what people thought of me and my family," he said. "Now I have all this attention, I'm going to put it out there whether you like it or not."
"I would love for men to talk about it even more," he added. "Do you know how manly that makes you look when you can sit up there and talk about being a rape victim to other people? That would give other people the confidence to speak out."