At the 11th hour, in the 11th year From Protest To Keynote - My NBLGLF Experienceby Cleo Manago
(Keynote Speaker at 1998 NBLGLF Conference)
A Historical Context
In 1987, it was from Phill Wilson, then co-chair of Black and White Men Together (BWMT) Los Angeles, that I first heard about development of a "Black Gay Leadership Conference." Wilson visited the Black Gay Men's Coalition (BGMC), an organization I had been a member of for 3 years, requesting funds for the conference. At the time, the Black Gay Men's Coalition (BGMC) was the only organization in Los Angeles created solely for the support of Black men who loved men.
A number of us in BGMC had issues with several things associated with the proposed conference. Wilson had never been to BGMC. We had never met Wilson but recognized him from pictures in the White gay press where he was frequently presented as the Black voice of the gay community. Wilson was a prominent member of Black and White Men Together (BWMT) an organization created by White men with a sexual fetish for Black men. I, personally, had attended two BWMT events in Los Angeles and found the organization disturbing and offensive. Black and White Men Together (BWMT) seemed sexually and psychologically exploitative of the great tendency among homosexual Black males, who had nothing affirming of them in their own communities, to flock to the gay community, an actively White supremacist bastion, for protection from the Black community and "homophobia." I saw with my own eyes hungry, hurting, confused young Brothers reject Black men and each other for the toxic shelter of homosexual White racism, a major issue at the time and even now in the gay [White] community. The racism included but was (is) not limited to Blacks, in particular, being asked for up to 3 pieces of identification to enter gay social institutions, then often denied entrance; Blacks being unable to receive quality services from gay community agencies; racist sexual objectification and invisibility in gay publications; and Black "gay" identified efforts located in the Black community not being listed or acknowledged in gay publications.
Blacks, from BWMT, tended to be chosen by the gay community as *the* gay Black leaders. I was concerned about BWMT, of all organizations, conducting a national conference allegedly for Black folks. My second concern (or maybe judgment) was that BGMC had been doing work in, with and for Black people, in the Black community for years and that it should be involved in development of such a conference. In response to Wilson's request for funds we said we would get back to him. We first needed to know more about this conference. Wilson told us that the conference was beyond the planning stages and that they now just needed to raise money and get sponsors. Again, we told Wilson that organizationally we first had to discuss the matter.
In the mean time members of BGMC, through investigation, learned that conference planning meetings were being held in Silver Lake (a primarily White gay community) at the home of Wilson and Chris Brownlie, Wilson's [White] lover - also a member of BWMT. Many of us, including Ron Grayson, who headed up BGMC, attended the meeting. To the shock of those already there, we walked in to find a living-room full of White men who were moved to tell us how much they loved Black men. "Black Gay Leadership Forum Conference" literature was spread around which read, "If you have ever dated a black man, have considered or would like to date a black man, this conference is for you." I was stunned and outraged by what I felt and believed was a BWMT smoke-screen camouflaged as a national conference that really was a legitimacy device for members of BWMT, that would also provide a national meat rack for White men to access Black men. As far as I was concerned, a Black conference was *not* what was being planned!
After some dialogue, excuses, arguments and explanations some of us from BGMC and Sisters from the Black community decided that we would be involved in development or redevelopment of this concept referred to as the "Black Gay Leadership Forum Conference." Soon into these attempts to collaborate with BWMT members on designing the conference, it became clear that at least in no time soon would a conference responsive to most Black same-gender-loving (SGL) people be developed. After all, all the planing meetings were held in the White gay community, most ideas coming from non-BWMT or non-interracialist participants were not considered, and the agenda, as Wilson implied at the BGMC meeting, had already been set. Some from the Black community suggested, "We should give it a chance, anyway." This sentiment was based on that SGL Black folks crucially needed a conference, a national vehicle toward our empowerment. I and others of like mind would not accept how things were developing, we decided not to work with the "Black Gay Leadership Forum Conference." I felt I would be more affective working in support of the optimistic Black folks trying to mold the conference into something more viable for the community.
During the first "Black Gay Leadership Forum Conference" in 1988, I stood by and watched a nation of same-gender-loving (SGL) Sisters and Brothers enthusiastically arrive in Los Angeles to attend the conference, not having a clue about the local politics of the event. With great self-control I contained my outrage trying hard to support my comrades involved in supporting the conference. As I expected, ultimately, most of them felt used and marginalized as the BWMT agenda determined most of what did occur at that conference. In 1989, Ron Grayson, from his hospital bed, where he was suffering from AIDS; Rolanda Teal a leader in the Black SGL women's community;16 Sisters and Brothers from the community and myself protested the "Black Gay Leadership Forum Conference." We framed it as the "Black Gay Misleadership Conference." Singer Natalie Cole, who was invited to speak at a conference luncheon saw us in front of the Hilton hotel where the conference was being held. Ms. Cole engaged us on why we were protesting. We told her. Concerned, she escorted Rolanda and I into the luncheon, sat us at a table up front, then spoke to attendees about inclusion. She donated $1000 advocating that the conference include issues relevant to a wider "gay" and HIV impacted Black community. She also requested that the conference provide room to address our concerns.
The following day, in our absence, to deflect the impact we had on the conference, members of the conference organizing team reported that those of us protesting were members of the New Alliance Party (NAP). They said we were trouble-making radicals trying to destroy things. The request by Natalie Cole that a platform be provided for our issues to be addressed, never occurred. As a result, the myth of us being subversive radicals led by a "mad Black militant named Cleo Manago who worked for NAP" was written in history as fact. This fallacy was bolstered by implication in a report in BLK magazine (as reported by members of BWMT). Our, particularly my voice, was never heard. The article, which prominently mentioned my name, was written with our side of the "story" never pursued toward a balanced and fair article. This incident followed and troubled my career for years, keeping many leery and afraid of me and from ever knowing who I really was. This created controversy at every gay -- and later AIDS -- activity or organization I was involved in, and complicated much of my work in these arenas.
This cursory chronology explains why I never attended the "Black Gay Leadership Conference" which later became the "Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum" and now the "National Black Lesbian and Gay Conference." Given this history, I could never have imagined, 11 years later, I would be invited to keynote at the "National Black Lesbian and Gay Conference." Particularly since it was not a goal, expectation or interest of mine. But as you will read, others had different plans.
What led to my attendance at the National Black Lesbian and Gay Conference:
My work as a community and human rights activist began as a teenager and continues to this day. In this capacity, I have built several organizations including, in 1989, the Black Men's Xchange (BMX); in 1991, The National Body of the Black Men's Xchange (NBBMX) forming chapters in Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland, Minneapolis, Denver, Sacramento and Detroit, with contacts all over the world; the AMASSI Center in Oakland - where the Black Women's Xchange (BWX), and Support, Information & Services for Transgendered Individuals (SISTI) was developed; and in 1993, the AMASSI Cultural Affirmation Center in Los Angeles.
Much has been accomplished. These programs have provided empowerment, self-love and discovery, inspiration, information and employment opportunities for many. These efforts have also produced innovative models of effective service delivery, widely replicated by many including Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum programs and the Minority AIDS Project. NBBMX has organized several successful national retreats attracting people from all over the country and as far away as Azania (South Africa). Though the Black and mainstream press published numerous articles on these triumphant events, which included the likes of Marlon Riggs, fathers, mothers, grandmothers and siblings of SGL black people, prominent people and City Mayors, more often then not NBBMX activities were ignored or minimized by the gay press, both Black and White. Press Releases had been sent to them too.
Still throughout this work, misinformation and turf wars continued locally. To date, little dialogue, in the direct sense, has occurred between the Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and community efforts I am involved in. Regardless of this local schism, overtime, the infectiousness of organizations I have built, retreats organized by NBBMX, writings and interviews -- the essence of the work has reached every major city (and some minor) in the nation. Articles printed in the SGL Black press (e.g. SBC, Alternatives, Venus, Colours, Male Box, etc.), disseminated through the world wide web and e-mail, along with my apparent tenacity and ability to endure some of the nastiest of rumor "storms," many were inspired to make contact, meet, invite me to their cities and visit the AMASSI Centers and BMX.
In 1995, I met Keith Boykin in New York at the Black Nations/Queer Nations Conference. He had "heard" about me and my work and asked to interview me for his book, "One More River To Cross." I was apprehensive at first because, as stated earlier, ever since protesting the "Black Gay Leadership Conference" in 1989, several concocted myths followed me, and lots of misinformation had traveled. I had personally addressed few about the "controversy, and many still reacted to and interpreted me based on what they had "heard." But something warm and genuine about Keith allowed me to have lunch with him and to be interviewed.
Many who later became key "players" in formation of the Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum (BLGLF) as a national effort, no longer based in Los Angeles, were in contact with me. Through on-line dialogue I met Steve Walker, a Caribbean SGL Brother from Houston, Texas, who became a BLGLF board member and conference co-chair. I met Debra Rose, an SGL Sister from Denver who also became a BLGLF board member and conference co-chair, and was invited by her to keynote at a conference held in Denver.
Debra Rose, Keith Boykin, and Steve Walker (who, along with others, strongly advocated that I speak on behalf of same-gender-loving (SGL) folks at the historic Million Man March), were all very involved in the Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum (BLGLF) which had become the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum (NBLGLF). They had something quite significant in common, in relationship to me: They had all met, experienced and engaged me *personally* as I did them. They were not determined by rumors and controversy, realizing my work, efforts and philosophy had great value. Later they would advocate or support my attending the 1998 National Black Lesbian and Gay Conference as a keynote speaker. The co-chairs of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Conference and the organization's Executive Director requested that I be a keynote speaker at the 1998 National Black Lesbian and Gay Conference. After some pondering and a little internal conflict I responded with..........."Yes, I would."
For weeks after my decision, I wondered to my self, "What have I gotten my self into?"
Upon arriving, on Thursday February 12, 1998, 10 years after protesting this same conference, it was surreal and a little emotional for me. I reflected on Ron Grayson, my best buddy and comrade who passed away long before this day. I didn't know what to expect. As I attempted to tip through the event, I was quickly recognized by several Sisters and Brothers of varying ages. Young people gathered around telling me very moving stories about the positive effect my writings had on their development and how inspired they were by the efforts of BMX and AMASSI. I was pleasantly surprised by the detailed memory some had about articles I had written years ago. I found out that some had used my essays for school projects and assignments. For so many and for me it was a warm and wonderful experience to finally engage, face-to-face, people I had corresponded with through e-mail, U.S. mail and telephone communication. I was very moved to meet a young Sister named Tiffany St. Cloud who was nominated by the conference for an award honoring her courage. She has featured a number of my articles on her website for young people and we have also corresponded. Some at the conference were "standoffish." I figured it was because of something they had heard, because I had never met them in my life. I figured, after I spoke on Sunday they would come around and many did.
It occurred to me that this conference was a bit different from what I noticed the first two years. There were few White people and no one on the board was from Los Angeles or connected to "that" history. BWMT's influence appeared invisible and people, including those once adversarial, were very willing to engage me on Black Affirmation and Same-Gender-Love (SGL) issues. I was told by several conference attendees that they came because they heard I would be speaking. Some who thought Phil Wilson and I were in some intense personal battle, also showed up to witness the match. Apparently it was yet realized that the conflict associated with Wilson and I was not of a personal nature, but philosophical and somewhat political.
Finally, Sunday, February 15, 1998, the day of my anticipated keynote speech arrived. Before entering the event I went to the men's room to freshen up. There I ran into Steve Walker. To my astonishment, Steve was crying, his eyes reddened. Concerned, I asked him what was wrong. He told me he was very anxious about this moment in time, he had waited years for this moment and it was about to manifest. Moved, I embraced him. He said he would be all right and we headed together for the luncheon. Steve would be introducing me. I was a little anxious too. I didn't prepare a speech. I knew conceptually what I would address; "Loving Ourselves In Our Own Image (Not Greek, German or White!), and Defining our Own Reality," but I knew not, exactly, what I would say.
After a frank, provocative, expressive and heartfelt introduction from Steve Walker, I began my keynote. As intended, I spoke about the importance and practice of same-gender-loving (SGL) Black folks loving ourselves in our own image, about the significance of having Black SGL leadership with the capacity to love Black people personally in their lives. I spoke of African ways of knowing, from the continent (Burkina Faso), where SGL Africans are recognized as the "Gatekeepers", and how we often miss this information chasing German and Greek symbols and history. I spoke of my experience while addressing the Nation of Islam as a SGL Black man, and other issues close to my heart. Because I was asked to, I also addressed, very shortly, my history with the Black Gay Leadership Forum and Conference.
When I finished, my talk was received with a rousing standing ovation. This indeed indicated a new day and new possibilities in my relationship to this entity called the "National Black Lesbian and Gay Conference." I was asked at the eleventh hour, to speak at the eleventh year conference as the keynote speaker on the last day. It appears the timing could not have been better.
Thank you Keith, Debra, Steve and the many Sisters and Brothers both new and known, both adversary and newly transformed former foe, I appreciate that my love for you and our people was invited through your (and maybe our) doors.
Cleo Manago ( email@example.com)
Last updated: 28 February 1998 by Chuck Tarver