On Malcolm X’s 80 birthday, Peter Tatchell reveals the hidden gay past of the American black nationalist leader.
Thursday May 19, 2005
Malcolm X was born 80 years ago today, on 19 May 1925. But amid the commemorations, controversy is brewing. Some black activists are enraged by suggestions that their hero might have been gay – or at least bisexual.
The controversy has been stirring since the publication of Bruce Perry’s acclaimed biography, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Station Hill, New York) in 1991. Based on interviews with Malcolm’s closest boyhood and adult friends, Perry suggests that the US black nationalist leader was not as robustly heterosexual as his Nation of Islam (NoI) colleagues have always insisted.
Malcolm X, real name Malcolm Little, joined the militant Muslim NoI in 1949, attracted by its teaching that Allah would deliver black people from white bondage. By the 1960s, Malcolm had developed NoI ideology in new directions, becoming America’s leading spokesperson for black consciousness, pride and self-help. Sexual freedom was not, however, part of his agenda.
Yet Perry’s book documents Malcolm X’s many gay experiences. A schoolmate, Bob Bebee, recalls the day they stumbled on a local boy jerking off. Malcolm, Bebee recalled, ordered the youth to masturbate him, and subsequently boasted he had given him oral sex.
Later, from the age of 20, Malcolm had sex with men for money – as hinted at in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic – and he had at least one sustained sexual liaison with a man. While living in Flint, Michigan, his roommate noticed that instead of sleeping in the room they were sharing, Malcolm sneaked down the hall to spend the night with a gay transvestite named Willie Mae.
In New York, two of Malcolm’s friends from Michigan remember bumping into him at the YMCA, where Malcolm bragged he earned money servicing “queers”. Later, Malcolm worked as a butler to a wealthy Boston bachelor, William Paul Lennon. According to Malcolm’s sidekick Malcolm Jarvis, he was paid to sprinkle Lennon with talcum powder and bring him to orgasm. Perry suggests that Malcolm’s gay encounters may not have been entirely financially motivated. His masculine insecurities and ambivalence towards women fit the archetype of a repressed gay man and point to latent homosexuality.
After the death of his father, when Malcolm was six, he lacked male role models and was dominated by strong women – in particular, his tyrannical mother. He feared women and his early sexual experiences with girls were mostly unsatisfactory. Far from macho, Malcolm hated fighting and got beaten by other men. His passionate assertion that the need to feel masculine is a man’s “greatest urge” indicates someone doubtful of his own manliness.
As for his sporadic gay hustling, as Perry notes, “there were other ways he could have earned money”. Dope-dealing, thieving and pimping were sources of income he had pursued with success. There was no imperative to sell his body.
Why, then, did he prostitute himself? Misogyny and repressed homosexuality might be the answer. According to Perry: “His male-to-male encounters, which rendered it unnecessary for him to compete for women, afforded him an opportunity for sexual release without the attendant risk of dependence on women.”
Was Malcolm X gay? Bisexual? In his schooldays, he was apparently a passive participant. Others masturbated or fellated him. Later, while working as a male prostitute, he took a more hands-on role in sex, especially with Lennon. This part-time whoring may have been pecuniary.
There is, however, plentiful research suggesting that many guys who have sex with men for payment are in denial about their homosexuality. They tell themselves they are doing it for the money. This is their way of coping with same-sex desires that they are unable to accept. Was this Malcolm’s excuse?
Surely there must have been some degree of queer desire to enable Malcolm to sustain his sexual experiences with men over a period of 10 years? If this desire was within him from adolescence to early adulthood, could he have erased it completely in later life?
Sexuality is not like a newspaper – read today and discarded tomorrow. Established desires can be sublimated or repressed, but never eliminated. If people have a homosexual capacity, it stays with them for life – even if they never act on it. Was Malcolm an exception? There is no evidence that his same-sex dalliances continued once he joined the NoI; he married and had children, and, with all the fervour of a zealous convert, he embraced the NoI’s fiercely puritanical Muslim sexual morality.
Had he not been assassinated in 1965, almost certainly at the hands of NoI rivals, Malcolm might have eventually, like Huey Newton of the Black Panthers, welcomed the gay liberation movement as part of the struggle for human emancipation. Instead, to serve its homophobic political agenda, for 50 years the NoI has suppressed knowledge of Malcolm’s gay past.
Now it is time to blow the whistle. There is not a single world-famous black person who is openly gay. Young black lesbians and gays need role models. Who better than Malcolm X, one of the inspirations of my activism and one of the great modern heroes of black liberation?