“When I told some of my gay friends that we were going to discuss Malcolm X’s homosexual experiences, a lot of them were apprehensive. Many of them cautioned me to be careful because they were afraid of seeing another Black icon torn down, another Black hero tarnished.” —Ron Simmons Sexuality, Television, and Death: A Black Gay Dialogue on Malcolm X
“The fact that no credible writer can write about Malcolm X without referring to the oft-quoted eulogy by Ossie Davis underlines just how central gender and sexuality are to understanding the black experience in America. For indeed, ‘Malcolm was our manhood.’” —Wendell Hassan Marsh “Malcolm X Biography: Are We Missing the Point?
In one section of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm quickly describes the sexual encounters of a character named “Rudy”:
[Rudy] had a side deal going, a hustle that took me right back to the old steering days in Harlem. Once a week, Rudy went to the home of this old, rich Boston blueblood, pillar- of-society aristocrat. He paid Rudy to undress them both, then pick up the old man like a baby, lay him on his bed, then stand over him and sprinkle him all over with talcum powder. Rudy said the old man would actually reach his climax from that.
However, when discussing this moment in his biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable writes, “Based on circumstantial but strong evidence, Malcolm was probably describing his own homosexual encounters with Paul Lennon. The revelation of his involvement with Lennon produced much speculation about Malcolm’s sexual orientation, but the experience appears to have been limited.” Bruce Perry referenced these encounters years earlier in his biography Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. He says: “According to Jarvis, Lennon paid Malcolm to disrobe him, place him on his bed, sprinkle him with talcum powder, and massage him until he reached his climax . . . Malcolm would later assert that someone else, not he, was giving Lennon his satisfaction. Though another man did take part in some of the rubdowns, Malcolm himself actively participated.” If we lend credibility to the findings of Marable and Perry, what do these homosexual interactions do to our understanding of Malcolm? Considering that he is seen as its symbol, what does this do to our understanding of black masculinity?
For some, these findings dismantle their constructions of Malcolm; it comes as a surprise that Malcolm X—strong, brazen Malcolm—was rumored to have homosexual encounters during his younger years. Many refuse to believe these claims, though. In an attempt to discredit the work of Marable, for instance, Jared Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs recently published A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X. Wendell Hassan Marsh elaborates on the extent of this opposition in his review of Marable’s book:
Before the work had even lived under public scrutiny for a week, it suffered attacks on its character. The reason: Somebody heard someone saying something about Brother Malcolm being gay! Of all things, we could take the prostrations of a Malcolm Little under racist paternalism. We could even tolerate the shady dealings and criminality of Detroit Red. But a queer or even a queered Malcolm X who may not have been as faithful to his wife as commonly thought is apparently insupportable.
Whether Malcolm did or did not engage in gay male sexual acts is beside the point. In fact, if this dominates the discussion, the point is missed entirely. What is important for us to consider, however, is the criticism and backlash that stemmed from the biographers’ mentioning of Malcolm’s participation in homosexual activity. This is the crux, the root of the problem. And only in starting here will we be able to advance and move forward in more productive discourse. For instance, what does this antagonism reveal about the gendered significance of Malcolm? Are we ready, as a community, for a homosexual or, at the very least, a bisexual black male icon? If not, what factors prevent this realization? And, lastly, can Malcolm still be considered “our manhood, our living, black manhood” with the acknowledgement that he participated in gay male activity? These are the types of questions that we must be strong enough to not only ask but also answer.
Considering the current progress and advancement of gay rights legislation, the attitudes expressed by Marable’s critics appear dated, but it is noteworthy that these opinions were articulated a mere three years ago. This just goes to show that “advancements” on paper take time to translate into “advancements” on the interpersonal level. Homophobia still pervades the airways, and it has especially retained its ideological currency among black men. Therefore, when talking about black masculinity and Malcolm, it is imperative that attention is given to the sanitized sexual history of the black icon.
Malcolm X once declared to a black male audience, “I am the man that you think you are!” What does it then mean that Malcolm, if Marable’s and Perry’s research holds true, felt a need to “closet” his former homosexual activity in his Autobiography? When turning back the pages of history to examine the lives of our black male icons, we must be careful in that we do not sully their respective legacies, for men like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as torchbearers in the black freedom struggle. However, we need to be critical of what we deem “dishonorable,” like an unearthing of gay encounters. Instead of imposing odd demands on black masculinity, we must reach a point where we, as a community, can allow it to operate on a spectrum. Thus enabling the existence of a fuller, more diverse notion of what constitutes black manhood. We must also reach a point to where we can openly acknowledge the humanity and shortcomings of our black icons. For if we fail to see the humanity in our heroes, we fail to see the hero in ourselves.