Cleo Manago


I was recently involved in a public debate on "Black Homosexuality" organized by members of the Nation of Islam. "The Great Debate: The Origins of Homosexuality In the Black Community" featured renowned Africentric health scholar, Dr. Llaila Afrika, and I as opponents.  Afrika believes homosexuality is a degenerative state and a disease resulting from sexual addiction, white supremacy, diet (yes, diet!) and institutionalized subliminal recruitment techniques.  He also believes that homosexuality was introduced to Blacks/Africans by European invasions on Black/African life. 

Community Concerns and Context Preceding The Debate: 
Upon announcement of the debate, locally and nationally, nervousness and suspicion among same-gender-loving (SGL) Sisters and Brothers becamethick. Weeks prior, I received mail and phone calls from people put off by its title  - "The Origins of Homosexuality In the Black Community." Some felt the debate was a set-up and I was being lured into a stacked anti-homosexual (or homophobic) attack.  Others passionately recommended, "Don't participate in this, Cleo, you are too intelligent for that!"  When asked why I agreed to do it, I responded with, "Regardless of how they present the topic or their questionable motives, I can hold my own!  The dialogue must happen in *our* community.  So far, at least in my lifetime, it hasn't - really - except for a few gay-identified Blacks who have talked *at* the Black community about gayness using white gay symbology, ethos, culture and rhetoric to defend 'Black gayness and lesbianism.'  I've seen gay-identified Black 'leaders' booed off the stage when talking to Black audiences about gayness. Then, an article in the gay/white press followed implying, with no cultural context of course, that the Black community is particularly homophobic. In my opinion, Blacks are not particularly homophobic, but react to how culturally irrelevant and insensitive the "gay" movement is.  There is an unspoken self-consciousness and humiliation about the disruption of Black male lives and manhood in this country under white supremacist systems.  Many Blacks see homosexuality (particularly among Black males) as a disturbing by-product of this circumstance."  I later address why the lives of SGL women tend to be excluded from these conversations. 

Blacks are responding to realities many of us are maybe too "gay" to address. Black maleness, responsibility, well-being, and manhood have been consistently disrupted by slavery, lynchings, sexual rape, police brutality, high unemployment, incarceration, assimilation and dehumanizing media images.  Brutal assaults on and murders of Black men  (i.e. Garnett Johnson - beheaded, burned alive; James Byrd Jr. - chained up dragged to his death; and Ennis Cosby - murdered by a young white male who bragged: "I just shot a nigger and it's all over the news.") continue.  Mindful of the tragic history and contemporary horrors Black males endure, many are disconcerted when we show up as homosexual or transgendered.  Without dialogue this appears as a symptom of Black males succumbing to ultimate failure perpetuating the demise of the Black community and family. 

Black 'homophobia' is often a veiled reaction to a brutal history of forced submission of Black men who now appear to be getting voluntarily "fucked" by White men - as homosexuals.  This interpretation causes a strong reaction. 

Numerous parents of SGL Black folks have expressed this concern as depicted by Keith Boykin in his book 'One More River To Cross.' Upon announcing his homosexuality to his parents their initial concern was: "Is he [your sex partner] white?" I personally have heard this a billion times!  In fact, typically when Black SGL persons are depicted in film and/or gain national exposure as "leaders," they have white 'lovers' or are never seen raising issues relevant to Black life in general.  They act as if gay [white] is more important. 

Given the lack of dialogue on all of these issues and how SGL Blacks are portrayed in the media, I see rational concern and judgement in the community.  The historical context behind what appear to be so-called homophobic attitudes among Blacks is rarely deconstructed or considered. 

Instead, gay identified Blacks have been silent, reactionary, separate from the community or defensive.  *All sides of this issue have justifiable points of view.* 

Typically, I followed these comments saying, "Many among Black consciousness and/or Africentric movements are hyper-sensitive about introductions of European/White ideas into our community - and gay is seen as just that. I agree!  Strong reactions to gayness are connected to a core purpose in Black/African movements to resurrect independent Black 'manhood.' This explains their patriarchal, homophobic and sexist tendencies. Relatively speaking, Black women have been encouraged to retain their "manhood", being the heads of many households and more employable (under White male controlled systems) than Black men.  Strong concentration on Black male disruption is also connected to why women-loving-women is rarely considered when issues of Black homosexuality are written about or raised by critics."  The debate was no exception. 

I also informed those who questioned my involvement in the debate that, "I have yet to see the issue of homosexuality in the Black community addressed in ways resonant with Black culture, life and history. These issues are connected to 'homophobic' attitudes in the Black community and cannot be and have not been sufficiently addressed through gay-identified Black based discussions in the Black community. Regardless of the strange title of the debate it is with this point of view in mind that I will address the issue. 

Not doing so has kept ignorance, fear, self-hate, abuse and confusion alive."  After such a long explanation, some understood.  Others could not imagine people would listen and still assumed the worst.  While others (in support, to help ensure I was prepared) sent me information on indigenous African spiritual practices, including rituals that could be identified as homosexual in the western world. 

Reshuffling A Stacked Deck:
Suspicion amongst SGL supporters and others grew when it was discovered that the debate would be preceded by a panel discussion.  Panelists included "religious leaders" from the Nation of Islam, Christian and Jehovah's Witness sects; among them Minister Tony Muhammad, Reverend Colin Akridge, and Firpo Carr, an anti-homosexual author of "Are Gays Really Gay?" These gentlemen are known to be extremely anti-homosexual.  Learning of the panel, I called Malik, bookstore owner, member of the Nation of Islam and sponsor of the debate.  I expressed concern that the event appeared stacked and one-sided. Women were not present in the dialogue - at all. Malik then mentioned that he had asked Carl Bean (Black gay activist, minister and leader/founder of Unity Fellowship Church) and members of his organization to attend, but never received a response. Reluctantly, Malik offered me the opportunity to invite others from the community who could add balance to the panel. Immediately I thought of Reverend Victoria Lee-Owens (a local writer, orator, minister, proud Africentric SGL Sister and mother); Tashia Asante' (filmmaker, activist, writer); and Charles Hamilton (activist, writer, leader and force in the Black Men's Xchange, Black affirming thinker  and law school graduate).  Before selecting additional panelists, I canvassed the community for others who could speak proudly and confidently on the issue of Black homosexuality.  It was important that they have the capacity to speak in ways resonant with Black affirmation and culture (not gay/white affirmation and culture).  Few were recommended beyond those I already considered.  So, Reverend Victoria Lee-Owens and Charles Hamilton were slated to speak on the panel with the "religious leaders."  Further, the Mooney Twins (heterosexual Brothers, who, through their work with the AMASSI Center, have become strong allies on behalf of same-gender-loving Sisters and Brothers) were also on the panel playing a key role in advocating that the debate take place. 

Raising the Stakes on Black Talk-Radio:
It became evident that the community was talking about the debate. During  the week of the debate Dr. Afrika and I appeared separately on local Black radio talk shows. These call-in shows provided opportunities to engage supportive people and those with judgmental and misguided attitudes (often referred to as homophobic) in discussion. Callers raised implications of child molestation, breaking laws of the bible, and participation in the destruction of the Black family.  On the bright side, many calls came in from SGL, bisexual, transgendered and heterosexual allies who affirmed the dialogue and mentioned that they learned from it. 

Debate Day: 
Black SGLs Stand Proud Among The Black Family 
Saturday, July 27, 1998 the eagerly anticipated day of "The Great Debate" arrived.  The afternoon began with the panel discussion moderated by Jahmal  Goree, co-host of KJLH's (owned by Stevie Wonder) "Front Page" radio talk show. The "religious leaders" were quite clichéd in how they addressed the subject of Black Homosexuality.  They spouted scriptures and stereotypes -- like homosexuals molest children, recruit, are an abomination and that old stand by "God didn't make Adam and Steve, but Adam and Eve!"  They said little that hasn't been said numerous times before.  At the risk of appearing biased, Reverend Victoria Lee-Owens, Charles Hamilton and The Mooney Twins were eloquent.  They were authentic and heartfelt spokespersons on behalf of Black Love, self-Love, affirmation, spirituality, integrity, and Black people embracing the whole for the empowerment of the collective! Among panel highlights were Reverend Lee-Owens' response to comments from one of the traditional fire and brimstone preachers, stating that his "tactics" would not intimidate her. She was eloquent, compelling and brilliant, so much so, that the minister, apparently feeling eclipsed, stood up exclaiming non-sensical verbage ending with "I got the fire under me." He then prematurely deserted the dais apparently too conflicted to continue the dialogue.  Charles Hamilton, dressed for symbolic drama in military fatigues powerfully articulated the importance of Blacks not being divided by internalization of racist white thinking. 

Following the panel discussion Dr. Llaila and I were introduced. I was the  first speaker.  Proudly, members of the New African People's Organization (a Black nationalist organization once "homophobic" but transformed through respectful dialogue) escorted me to the stage.  They were at my side throughout the debate modeling the power and importance of actively embracing our community's diversity. 

Because of limited space I'll be brief: 
I spoke of the issues I said I would when questioned why I chose to participate in the debate.  I introduced Kabaka Mwanga, the Gatekeepers of Burkina Faso, The Adodi, et al.  I also spoke of monsters like Jeffery Dahmer who morbidly opportunized off the lack of acknowledgment and affirming spaces for SGL people in the Black community.  In addition I addressed how homosexuality does not stem from white and colonial influences.  But that homophobia stemmed from these influences.  I used history and transparencies depicting the life and death of Joan of Arc, the European Inquisition against those perceived as homosexual, the mass murder of homosexuals and the history of the pink-triangle during Hitler's reign in Germany. I introduced an African-based emblem symbolizing same-gender-love and cosmology.  I also spoke of internalized white supremacy and of ancient African same-gender-love in Egypt exemplified by Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep an SGL male couple of the palace of King Niusere of the Fifth Dynasty.  And there was much more... 

Then, Dr. Afrika commenced with his presentation. It appeared that my opponent was so taken aback by my presentation (I suspect he expected me to do a traditional European, pink triangle-laden gay, rainbow flag diatribe) he fumbled papers altering his prepared presentation mid stream.  He offered a fragmented primarily white-faced presentation that had little to do, directly, with homosexuality among Blacks.  He used theories, graphics and histrionics, practically never addressing what I presented, the issue, or me - except to ask, "What do you do in bed?"  More occurred than I can fit into the space of this column.  So, I'll summarize by saying: Dr. Afrika did not prove his theories.  I addressed homosexuality in the context of Black life in a way that apparently was resonant with many in the majority Black audience.  I was never booed, attacked, shunned or disrespected. Moreover, following the debate I was mobbed with affirmation from a cross section of our community.  The mail, phone calls and appreciation (including from former foes) have yet to stop.  Oh yeah! Dr. Afrika, came up to me, put his hand on the small of my back, then embraced me saying: "Pardon my theatrics. 

I agreed with what you were saying: We need to work together to save our community."  He then handed me information on how to contact him.  Later that evening we were on a radio talk show together where Dr. Afrika made not even one specifically "homophobic" comment. 

In Conclusion:
Black same-gender-loving (SGL) Sisters and Brothers, and other members of the community experienced that myths often leading us to self-hate and to question our worth were unsubstantiated.  SGLs were able to revel in the realities of our contribution, legacy, purpose and value.  This occurred in the presence of a diverse Black community.  I doubt if everyone present had transformed, but several were empowered and/or enlightened. 

This historic event indicates how crucial it is that our community demystify our differences, and discover its human riches, for the wealth and health of us all. 


The "Great Debate" was videotaped and recorded on audiocassette.  Video and audio recordings are available for purchase through the National Body of the Black Men's Xchange (NBBMX).  Acquire it, make your own decisions and be empowered. 

We invite you to do so. To order your copy contact NBBMX by phone at 310-419-1961, email at or at the "Great Debate Website" 

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