Cleo Manago is despised by some in the LGBTQ community. Descriptors like “homo demagogue,” contrarian, separatist, and anti-white are just a few that can be expressed in polite company. But to a nationwide community of same-gender-loving (SGL), bisexual, transgender, and progressive heterosexual African-American men, Manago is -the MAN -seen as a visionary game changer and “social architect” focusing on advocating for and healing a group of men that continues to be maligned and marginalized: brothers.
“Without an understanding of the deep hurt that Black men have around issues of masculinity and their role as a man, you can’t hope to eliminate anti-homosexual sentiment in Black men,” Manago wrote in his recent article “Getting at the Root of Black ‘Homophobic’ Speech,” in which he castigates GLAAD for demanding that CNN fire Roland Martin for misconstrued homophobic tweets. “There has been no national project to address the psychic damage that White supremacy has done to Black men. But there is always some predominantly White institution waiting, ready to pounce on a Black man for behaving badly.”
Unapologetically Afrocentric in his approach in addressing social, mental, and health issues plaguing communities of black men, Manago has created a national study on black men (the Critical Thinking and Cultural Affirmation (CTCA) study) and has built two organizations that, for more than two decades, have had national recognition and have successfully secured millions of dollars in funding: AmASSI Health and Cultural Centers, and Black Men’s Xchange (BMX).
Manago’s CTCA study is a culturally informed, preventive health strategy that addresses positive mental, sexual, and community health, encouraging self-actualization, cultural empowerment, and responsibility. CTCA has been in practice since 2002.
As the founder and CEO of AmASSI Health and Cultural Centers, Manago was one of the first innovators in the AIDS movement to provide HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention services utilizing a psychosocial, mental health model that was culturally specific to the African-American identity. AmASSI has been in practice since 1989.
Manago is the national organizer and founder of Black Men’s Xchange, the oldest and largest community-based movement devoted to promoting healthy self-concept and behavior, cultural affirmation, and critical consciousness among SGL, bisexual, and transgender males and their allies, with chapters in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Orange County, Detroit, Denver, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Black Men’s Xchange has been funded by the Center for Disease Control’s Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative program. And the CDC positions BMX alongside other legacy community black organization such as the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and American Urban Radio Networks. BMX has been in practice since 1989.
A native of south-central Los Angeles, Manago began a vocation in social services at the age of 16. While many would call him a social activist, he does not like the term “activist” applied to him, because he considers black LGBTQ activism tethered to mainstream white privilege, ideology, and single-focused gay organizations, which he views as culturally dissonant and too limited in scope to be meaningful and beneficial to African-American LGBTQ communities and the larger black community.
To many in Manago’s community and beyond, he’s an unsung hero greatly misunderstood and intentionally marginalized by LGBTQ power brokers. Manago would contest that one factor contributing to his marginalization was the debacle between him and Keith Boykin during the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March. In commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March, the Nation of Islam (NOI) decidedly chose one LGBTQ organization over another, and that decision highlights much of the political, class, and ideological differences in the African-American LGBTQ community at large. Keith Boykin, the founder and then-president of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), an African-American LGBTQ civil rights organization of which I was then a board member, was dropped from the event, but Cleo Manago was not. Both men had much to bring to the 2005 Millions More March, but Manago mirrored the fundamental sentiment of Farrakhan’s theology — a conscious separation from the dominant, white heterosexual and queer cultures — and he’d spoken at the historic 1995 Million Man March. In an open letter Manago emailed around in 2005:
“BMX knows the Nation of Islam (NOI). It’s an independent black organization not funded by the HRC or any white folks. The NOI does not, nor does it have to succumb to White gay press laden, black homosexual coercives who want to ram a white constructed gay-identity political agenda — that even most Black homosexuals reject — down their throats. Over the years, several members of the Nation of Islam have been to BMX. As some of you may know, almost 10 years ago BMX co-sponsored a very successful transformative debate on Homosexuality in the Black community with the Nation in L.A.”
As a queer separatist organization, many LGBTQ African Americans applaud BMX for being unabashedly queer and unapologetically black. But the terms “queer” and “gay” are not descriptors Manago and his organization would use to depict themselves. That would be “same-gender-loving,” because terms like “gay” and “queer” uphold a white queer hegemony that Manago and many in the African-American LGBTQ community denounce. As a matter of fact, he takes credit for having coined the terms “men who have sex with men” (MSM) and “same-gender-loving” (SGL).
To some in the LGBTQ community, Manago is a dangerous demagogue. But to tens of thousands African-American brothers and generous funders, he’s seen as a brother driven with a dream. And he’s perhaps dangerous because he’s effecting change.