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.
However, to a nationwide community of same-gender loving ( SGL ) , bisexual, transgender and progressive heterosexual African-American men, Manago is the man. He is 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. 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," Manago wrote in his recent article, "Getting at the Root of Black "Homophobic Speech," in which he castigates the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ( GLAAD ) for demanding that CNN fire Roland Martin for misconstrued homophobic tweets.
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 and has built two organizations that for more than two decades have had national recognition and have successfully secured millions of dollars in funding—Critical Thinking and Cultural Affirmation Study, AmASSI Centers for Wellness and Culture, and Black Men’s Xchange.
Manago’s study, called "Critical Thinking and Cultural Affirmation" ( CTCA ) , 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 Center, 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 ( BMX ) , the oldest and largest community-based movement devoted to promoting healthy self-concept and behavior, cultural affirmation, and critical consciousness among SGL, bisexual, transgender males and allies, with chapters in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Denver, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. BMX has been funded by the Center for Disease Control’s Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative program. In addition, 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. He considers Black LGBTQ advocacy tethered to mainstream white privilege, ideology and single-focused gay organizations culturally dissonant and limited in scope to be meaningful and beneficial to not only African-American LGBTQ communities but also to the larger Black community.
To many in Manago’s community and beyond, he’s an unsung hero greatly misunderstood and intentionally marginalized by LGBTQ powerbrokers.
One factor Manago would say has contributed to his marginalization was the debacle between him and Keith Boykin during the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March.
In commemorating the anniversary, the Nation of Islam decidedly chose one LGBTQ organization over another. That choice highlights much of the political, class and ideological differences in the African-American LGBTQ community at large.
Boykin—the founder and then-president of the National Black Justice Coalition, an African-American LGBTQ-rights organization of which I was then a board member—was dropped from the event. However, 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 spoke at the 1995 Million Man March.
In his open letter, Manago wrote 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 Manago believes terms like "gay" and "queer" uphold a white queer hegemony that he and many in the African-American LGBTQ community denounce. As a matter of fact, he is credited with coining the terms "men who have sex with men" ( MSM ) and "same-gender-loving" ( SGL ) .
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