Written by PHILLIP ESTEEM
Cleo Manago, 44, founder of the Black Men’s Xchange (BMX) and AmASSI National Health & Cultural Centers, is one of the high profile people in the not for profit health, wellness and social services sector. He has written over $11 million in successful grant proposals for programs for services that were targeted for diverse ethnic and sexual communities. His published works have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, California Voice, Essence Magazine, SBC, Venus, and several other noted publications. Here he shares with us what’s on his mind.
Please describe your current or most recent project (s). Include a brief overview of your motivation for the project and any notable challenges you encountered.
First, thank you Mr. Esteem, sincerely, for this interview. Though, I am interviewed often, by a number of different sources, I do not take opportunities to engage my community for granted.
My recent projects include writing and developing a film that examines the intersection of Black male American imagery, sexuality; self and societal perceptions, and the impact of these on life in America - historically and currently. My motivation is the same as it has always been, until meaningful change occurs: improving the unity, perception, self-concept, wellness, structural and cultural imbalances Black people face, and making America aware of the importance of advancing this situation. The challenges have been the main ones always faced by non-mainstream film, acquiring the resources to get it made.
Under what circumstances did you get started as a gay activist?
I am not a gay activist. Never have been, and strongly request not to be referred to as such. I am a Black, same-gender-loving “social architect” and visionary, a researcher, doer, cultural expert and behavior change strategist. Organizations and activities I have headed up purposely dismantle or challenge thinking that is not constructive or instructive to our community. We build community, create dialogue and motivate behavior and attitude change.
What got me started was inspired by my being naturally a very sensitive child, and inquisitive thinker from a very young age. I came from a community and family where internalized oppression, religious contradictions and the symptoms of what I learned to be racism and post-slavery trauma syndrome were rampant. I could not accept things as they were, so I fantasized until I was old enough to actualize doing something about what pained or concerned me. Those issues were more relevant to being Black in America than my sexuality. As early as 8 years of age it was quite clear that I would be falling in love with another male. As a matter of fact by age 8, I already had. There’s a popular autobiographic story I wrote called, In Love Too Early, In Love Too Late, that tells that story.
I was never interested in being a Black gay activist. I have always experienced Black gay activism as culturally dissonant or too limiting in scope to be of meaningful or transformative benefit to Black people. As a matter of fact, focus on gay identity (ID) has kept us in a state of suspended animation and non-progress. The state of this community, including; a sustained HIV problem (for 30 years now), no supportive or effective leadership, being still politically insignificant, with no strong independent institutions, to date, indicates my point. Black gay identifying youth (or Black youth being persuaded to identify as gay) and those at HIV risk, or living with it have little to no protective, educational or empowerment infrastructure or programs. This too contributes to the still high HIV infection rates, disproportionate substance use and premature death.
You are often credited as being the first to coin the acronyms “MSM” or “SGL,” how do they differ from “DL”?
To contextualize my perspective, I will add the word “gay” to your list. Hopefully, as I describe them all, how they differ will be clear. The term “MSM” (men who have sex with men) was developed in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and that it impacted a continuum of Black and Latino males who have sex with males. Not just those who identified as gay. As is still true, many Black and Latino males who have sex with males – be it based on desire, love or circumstance - do not identify with or as a gay. Nor do many have an affinity with the culture, and, in particular the politics of gay (rainbow flags, triangles, lambdas, white/European homosexual culture, parades, the interracialist media portrayals and “outing” people, etc.). Even among many Blacks who do use the term gay it is often not a pride-driven or social change decision, but a term loosely used as opposed to more offensive terms (i.e. punk, faggot, and sissy). It was realized by “us” who paid attention that the term “gay” was limiting and alienating to a large group of males of color. Instead of judging that, for the sake of public health, a more inclusive term - MSM - was needed to capture the diversity and self-perceptions among homosexual and bisexual males (particularly of color). The goal was to create opportunity for them all to be educated and access HIV/AIDS services. But the relentless gay ID agenda, to receive funding, has always and still does divert the original public health intent of MSM.
The term SGL or same-gender-loving was created from the Black community to provide SGL Black folks with a way of referencing ourselves that articulated and highlighted “loving” as our intention. That we do and can love needed (and needs) to be noted. It often gets lost in the fog of internalized and societal oppression, disastrous relationships and more recently the Black male HIV/AIDS holocaust. The labels Gay or lesbian do not remedy much for Black people, nor do they affirm us. They do affirm white people. Despite homophobia, HIV/AIDS, Revs. Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson, the Christian Right or the [President] Bushes, gays [white homosexuals] have been very successful politically, monetarily and medically as a result of their movement. On the other hand, without a gap, Black people have endured epidemics of HIV, self hate and cultural disruption that gay identity (ID) could never solve. And, it needs to be solved! Things are worst now for us, as we have relied on gay identity assimilation as a magic bullet. It has been a bullet in our foot, not to our benefit.
SGL tends to and intends to culturally affirm us as it was created by us for us, and to shake things up from the previous gay ID complacency problem that kept us in an unconstructive trance. That trance needed to be broken. I am pleased to say that SGL has definitely done that, around the world and Diaspora. I never initiate mentioning my relationship to SGL, because, it is not and should not be about me, but about SGL Black people needing to be affirmed, restored, and learn to love and respect our selves in our own image. SGL is about us relinquishing self-hate and doubt in this community. It is interesting to me when people ask, “Where did SGL come from?” Too often it is a rhetorical question that attempts to discredit SGL. These people almost never ask, “Where did gay come from?” So, I ask them that. Typically they do not know or care, because since white people came up with it, what’s to question? Like I have said, self-hate and anti-Black attitudes are our bigger issues.
The term gay was created and coined by an exclusively and initially very race biased group of white men in the late 60s. James Baldwin was alive and well during development of the [white] gay movement. Though he made no qualms about it being known that he was homosexual, as a serious Black freedom fighter he did not identify as gay, or let that community use him. He, as I do, saw gay as a movement built for and in benefit to white homosexuals. Its primary beneficiaries are white, which is why ultimately, relative to Black folks, they were able to save their community from the ravages of HIV/AIDS. “Gay” has never had that impact on Black homosexuals, even among those who call themselves “gays.” Self respect and cultural affirmation works! We must note this if we want change. Could you imagine whites taking down their rainbow flags and European triangles to put up African SGL symbology and begin calling themselves “gate keepers” (a term often used to describe SGL folks in Burkina Faso) in mass, which honors Black heritage? No. But we honor their heritage, and marginalize our own at every turn. Even if it kills us! And it has.
The term DL, meaning down-low is a racist misnomer which implied that Black males were/are the poster children for being married and involved secretly in homosexual behavior. Racist hypocrisy and anti-Black male stigma surrounded construction of the DL like a whirl wind, despite the litany of married or perceived to be heterosexual White men of note thrown out of the closet, and the film Broke Back Mountain. DL is a myth that served no purpose but to re-stigmatize Black men and induce divisive fear in Black women.
Do you believe it is self-degrading to use these terms to identify oneself rather admitting to being gay?
I do not identify as gay, but as SGL, and do not have a self-degrading bone in my body. Also, like Baldwin, who also did not identify as gay, I make no qualms about it being known that my spouse is a Black male. Or that, along with other Black empowerment issues, I advocate for justice and human rights for SGL folks. The way you posed this question, though, implies that gay identity has no relationship to self-degradation. This is profoundly untrue. I know of legions of Black males who self-identify as gay who degrade themselves, and/or who have little respect for other Black men. I know of many who are involved in unprotected sex, some who work for these Black gay identifying organizations. There is a CDC Young men’s study which reported that most of the Black male respondents who identified as gay put themselves at HIV risk more than the homosexual men who did not. Those findings made sense to me, being that I believe gay identity disorients us and does not affirm us or inspire Black self respect. How would you explain it?
What is the equivalent of self-degradation is being stuck (or acting as if we are) with labels that do not affirm or improve us. Like it or not, Blacks or African Americans are a people in process. I mean, if we were not in process, we would still be calling ourselves Negros or colored. Some of us forget that up until very recently, as a people, we went from being called “property”, “hey nigger,” Negros,” Negro, “colored,” to naming ourselves Afro-American, Black and now African American. Clearly, some of us knew change was necessary. Still, there were major fights between us (some of us worried about what white folks would think) at every change. Yet, we are in process and better off we are, or as a people we would still be stuck at “property.” Mentally some of us still are.
There is a progressive and healthy reason why terms like homothug, homiesexual, SGL, “In the life,” and more destructive terms like DL and "my nikka" manifest among Black homosexuals. This occurs regardless of whether “gay” exist and is widely promoted by that community. Among today’s SGL youth is a desire to have their sexuality, and remain explicitly connected to Black life and culture too. Gay did not do that for them.
Yet, still, we have to contend with old school, Black gay ID mentalities who at almost every turn, irrationally attempt to discredit same-gender-loving. One of their tactics is to imply that calling your self anything but gay is homophobic or forces you back in the closet. That makes me laugh because I, for one, have never been in a closet. Many of them have. There is nothing “closeted” about calling your self a homo-anything (i.e., homothug) or same-gender-loving. Some have been so desperately oppositional, that instead of SGL they use “same-sex-desire.” They don’t realize that I think that that’s cool too. It’s clearly a reaction and related to SGL. As long as they are not just complacently gay, SGL, SSD, it’s self-determination and that’s all good. Self-naming is a healthy, natural progression among people with the audacity and self-respect to be in process, instead of stuck in an old school, un-constructive trance.
“It was realized by “us” who paid attention that the term “gay” was limiting and alienating to a large group of males of color. Instead of judging that, for the sake of public health, a more inclusive term - MSM - was needed to capture the diversity and self-perceptions among homosexual and bisexual males (particularly of color). The goal was to create opportunity for them all to be educated and access HIV/AIDS services.”
Explain the concept behind the term psychoneuroimmunology? Does education and income play a role? Please quantify.
A Harvard study from the seventies discovered receptors on our immune cells for neuropeptides. Neuropeptides are chemicals produced by the brain that vary with our emotions. The results of this study point to the simple fact that your immune system is responsive to your mental state. How you think is how you feel. When someone tells you that you’re only as old as you feel, believe it. Oppression, realized or repressed (particularly if it is repressed), can weaken your immune response to its challenges. This, I believe, contributes to Blacks dying more, and getting HIV more under similar circumstances where whites die or are compromised less. For example, lots of white men too are still having “raw” sex. But many of them realized or not, have what I call entitlement consciousness. You will rarely if ever hear a white man in a rage utter “Honkeys ain’t shit.” Because they, overall, do not even have the impulse to dehumanize themselves. We do it daily, with the word nigga and Black. One is not just an MF; they become a Black (with emphasis) MF during the rages against each other some of us have. This too has a negative psychoneuroimmunological impact on Black psyches. Getting a weave or marrying a white (or light) person will not resolve the psychoneuroimmunological injury caused by the unaddressed micro and macro stressors many Black people face.
It must be said that there is a positive side to psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) as well. When one is happy or fulfilled, this can cause increased lymphocyte function; increased NK (Natural Killer Cell) activity; and increased immune response to treatments and even a healthy diet.
Resolution does include education, but not neutral education, it would involve a curriculum specifically designed to restore our humanity among each other, while informing us positively about our possibilities with direction and ways of thinking that advance us in particular as Black people, as SGL, heterosexual, etc. Regarding income, there are millions of Black people with a sizeable income. But where many are bankrupt is when it comes to giving too (not back but to) their community to help build independent institutions to do the educational work I previously described.
Do you believe that GLBTQ people of color have an obligation to speak out against social injustice? Why or why not?
I believe that all people who truly believe in justice and human rights should speak out, and then do something beyond talk about social injustice. Yet, in my opinion, among gay identified Black people, the biggest hate crimes they are subject to are self-hate crimes. The level of venom I have seen in this community toward each other would make a rattle snake jealous. It is important that we realize the impact of self-hate, to unlearn it. It is Black homosexual men, who, overall, are transmitting HIV to each other. A heterosexual, or some so-called homophobic boogey man, behaviorally, has little to do with this. The email I get almost daily from young SGL people in most major cities are complaints about the condition and behavior in the Black so-called gay community. Not “homophobia” in their church.
Why did you become personally involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS?
1.) HIV/AIDS was not my entrée into addressing Black community health issues. As matter of fact, even today, HIV/AIDS is not my primary health focus. Mental heath is. I have been personally involved in Black human rights activism, social services and community mental health since I was 16. When HIV came along, realizing how it was transmitted and primarily to whom, I had to get involved. Logic and my cultural-behavioral theories told me that HIV/AIDS would have a particularly huge impact on SGL and MSM Black males and females at sexual risk. I saw the gay ID focused approaches being promoted to Black folks as THE HIV/AIDS prevention and care model, and had to develop another more dimensional model. 2) Overall, to date, gay identified Black folks have no organized community, political significance or supported leadership to transform itself into developing the entitlement consciousness necessary to build momentum and cohesion toward Black self and community protection from HIV, or anything else.The inability, still, to effectively address HIV/AIDS among Black males is directly connected to what keeps Black females at-risk (let alone a larger number of Black males). Because of how men are built, physically, regarding genitalia, men are the primary HIV vectors. The anti-Black male tendency, in media and elsewhere, to perpetually ignore this crisis among Black males, and focus primarily on females, will continue the spread of HIV. Most females with HIV got it from a male.
Do you believe the current methods used to educate the public are effective? If so why or why not?
What has been done to protect the public at-large, white people [supposedly], including [white] gays, clearly, has been comparatively very effective. What is being done in general regarding Black people has not worked, and could never work, particularly among homosexual and bisexual Black males (who still are the most HIV impacted in the nation). Because, the blueprint at the foundation of methods targeting this population is a gay identity advocacy agenda. This was started by leaders in organizations like Black and White Men Together (BWMT), who were first in the country to get major dollars, millions, to educate Black men at HIV risk. They failed miserably! Many of the Black men involved loved white men, and had no qualms with that their HIV education model came from white gays. That approach has never worked and will never work! Yet, BWMT’s legacy still keeps itself at the forefront of Black AIDS issues, ironically using rhetoric that replicates my work to appear relevant, while they continue to fail us.
We are Black in white biased America, dealing with a litany of issues including: manhood and masculinity anxieties; and too many cases of self-hate, disrespect and/or disdain around being Black let alone homosexual. Key to Black people managing HIV/AIDS and other disproportionate casualties unique to our community (and it is us who have to do it) is building a unified or diverse response to the issues. At the foundation of this is effective community building, and education and awareness opportunities that competently facilitate demystification of our differences and similarities as diverse Black people in this country.
Overall, to date, gay identified Black folks have no organized community, political significance or supported leadership to transform itself into developing the entitlement consciousness necessary to build momentum and cohesion toward Black self and community protection from HIV, or anything else.
The methods for change utilized in work I have spearheaded have resulted in powerful and historic inroads being made into traditionally anti-homosexual Black and/or mainstream systems that gay Black ID advocacy organizations have not. Despite their money and (probably because of their) white gay back up, they have made little progress. It is not because people among these Brothers and Sisters are not brilliant or dynamic. They keep using an inappropriate paradigm. It may personally give them money and photo ops, or TV appearances, but clearly it has done nothing for the community.
Community inroads we have made include: the Black Men’s Xchange (BMX) and I being asked, as an openly SGL men, to speak at the Nation of Islam’s Million More March in 2005 (and at the first march in 1995). An SGL Sister named T’ashia Asante was also invited to speak, but ultimately schedule conflicts ensued. Also, the AmASSI center is the only Black organization in the country to be identified in the American Journal of Public Health as devising and testing a promising HIV prevention strategy (called the Critical Thinking & Cultural Affirmation or ‘CTCA’ methodology) for African Americans at risk, the SGL movement, and AmASSI Health & Cultural Center, as far back as 1989, being the first organization in the country to approach HIV/AIDS prevention and care with a Black culturally affirming paradigm. The methodology was and is sexuality/gender diverse and inclusive. Not the traditional gay ID propelled models that still do not work. Tired of failure many of them now attempt to replicate both BMX and AmASSI, 20 years later.
Tell us about some of the myths and misconceptions that you encounter about gay people and those living with HIV/AIDS in the African American community?
I do not focus on negative perceptions of SGL people and those living with HIV/AIDS in the African American community. Those perceptions are there, and redundantly so. These attitudes are not the exclusive property of heterosexual people. We are all systematically at risk to have myths and misconceptions about SGL people and those living with HIV/AIDS. Among the Black homosexual community people with HIV are still treated cruelly. Go on the internet, and look at these male to male websites. The brutality is mind-boggling. Heterosexuals are no where around. Nationally, I often ask SGL Brothers and Sisters, what event has happened in your community or family that could suddenly produce great respect for SGL Black folks. It is now 2007, and in 99.9% of instances they say “little or nothing.” As a matter of fact, the only major event some of them referenced was when I spoke at the Millions More Movement March two years ago. Though that was historically significant, it is still not enough. So why should attitudes change?
Not enough has been done by us to counter negative perspectives of us. So why are we complaining? Black men identifying as gay have had little impact on their community having safer sex. As stated earlier, I know of hard core gay identified Black males with low-self esteem and who live very HIV risky lives, some who work in the HIV/AIDS industry. Self-love and respect rarely comes as a result of sexuality focus, so-called [gay] pride or prowess. Loving and respecting ourselves as Black people, and learning to be critical thinkers in a society full with anti-Black, and anti-Black male (and anti-African featured female) messaging, as well as anti-homosexual messaging are key to our transforming the HIV epidemic. Exhibiting self-respect and deep respect for our community and history would also reduce misconceptions about Black and SGL people and those living with HIV/AIDS.
You mentioned that at the age of 8 years-old you recognized that you were a SGL individual, what advice would you give to young people regarding coming out?
As you might imagine, I don’t subscribe to the [white] gay concept of “coming out.” As previously stated, much of what gay offers is too limited for a community – ours – that is still in the process of restoration (restoration from intergenerational racism fatigue, four hundred years of legalized oppression and bondage, Jim Crow, socially implemented self-hate and doubt, cultural and family disruption, confusion and normalized mental illness, often mistaken as [just] Black culture).
I advise young people to actively learn to respect and love themselves, to engage why they may doubt who they are, and locate those answers, and investigate if the messenger who negatively influences their self-concept really deserves that level of life-impacting credibility. What they may learn is even if they love this person or people, be they a parent, friend, or man or woman in a man-made robe that self-selected themselves to be a minister of the gospel, etc. they probably have not earned the credibility to be allowed to have that kind of influence.
I believe that initially, instead of “coming out” (I think most of us know an “out” gay identified person with low-self esteem), we should be coming *into* our selves, into self knowing, self and community respect, love and healing. Then the rest will take care of itself. Like I have always said, ‘Self-love is its own reward.’ When one loves and respect themselves and community, their presence alone could provoke reconsideration of a negative perspective of whom or what they are. Being a critical thinker is key too.
I also recommend that young people read the whole speech I prepared for the Millions More March @ http://woubiyossi.tribe.net/thread/69c759fa-2b41-4e40-af76-42cd37573427
Are you in favor of civil unions?
What do you believe is the biggest misconception about you or your work?
That I hate white people or anybody. Internalized white-supremacy has many of us thinking that being Black affirming or pro-Black is anti-white or racist. Often we don’t realize that the opposite of pro-Black is anti-Black, not anti-white.
That because I am so-called “very masculine” and don’t identify with or as gay that I’m “homophobic”.
That SGL has any connection at all with the DL. That’s just plain gayified ignorance and illogical.
Or that I’m in personal or personality fights with more mainstream “acceptable” Black gay-identified people whose politics and approach I find destructive or totally disagree with. It’s not personal.
Speaking of acceptability, gaining acceptability status in a society still built, primarily, around white comfort, control and entitlement, and the control of Black voices, opinion and imagery, at least for me, is not desirable. I know why Tavis Smiley's show is on at midnight on PBS (though he is vying hard for more mainstream acceptance), why Oprah has a prime-time slot on ABC, and why the very successful Arsenio Hall show was cancelled. I prefer to be effective, not popular. When you are effective the essence of your work has more meaning and influence than the acceptable Black people anyway. Could you imagine Oprah building an educational and empowerment center for African American girls (or boys) too? If she did she would get the same “mainstream” acceptability dejection that Michael Jackson did.
Here is one of the reasons Arsenio’s popular show was cancelled: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxGQzs22K3s
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
More successful at getting social change, Black community advancement and effective health methodology messages out, some books published and a few documentaries. I hope to have children and be celebrating my eleventh year of marriage by then too.
Marital Status: Married
Original Residence: Los Angeles
Current Residence: Between L.A., Atlanta, and New York
Email: cleomanago at aol.com
Mental Health in West Africa
Accra, Ghana Sponsored by the Association of Black Psychologist (2000)
Multi-cultural Studies and Spirituality
Myanmar, (Burma) Sponsored by the Learning Tree, San Francisco, CA (1995)
Havana Community Health Project
Havana, Cuba Sponsored by New College of California, San Francisco, CA (1994)
Tangiers Health and Hygiene Project
Tangiers, Morocco Sponsored by Spectrum International Health Projects San Francisco, CA (1991)
National Conference on African Americans and AIDS (2003)
Western Region Summit -Consultant (2002-2003)
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment – New Grantees Conference (2001, 2002, 2003) DC
Proactive 4 A Change: HIV/AIDS African-American Community Conference
(2001, 2002, 2004) Denver, Colorado
Listed in the “Our Times” section of the Los Angeles Times, among the 100 Most Influential African
Americans in Los Angeles (1999)
Outstanding Community Service Honors:
Karibou Community Services (1996)
National Assoc. of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club, Inc (1992)
Letter of Proclamation for Outstanding Community Service: City of Inglewood, Councilman Curren Price
(1995 & 1996)
Mayor’s Office of the City Of Oakland, Elihu Harris (1992)
Special Recognition: Brother of the Year Award (for Politics), SBC Magazine (1995)
Favorite food: Asian & Mediterranean
Favorite color: Blue, and Black people’s skin tones
Favorite book: The only novel I have ever read, Sula by Toni Morrison.
NO one knows that he likes to: Make love in natural settings, that I am very much involved in violence prevention against women activist work. That mental and community health are more my focus than HIV/AIDS, and that I once dreamed about marrying Keith Boykin so we could be an SGL power couple and use both of our intelligence to make life better for our SGL Brothers and Sisters.
What’s playing in his CD player? Something by old-school Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Stephanie Mills, Lalah or Donnie Hathaway, the first Indie Arie album or EWF.
Phillip Esteem is a writer for www.PrideIndex.com.