Two days ago, a good friend of mine stopped by my office to say hello. My friend is a revolutionary activist that Iâ€™ve known since he was a teenager. Like always, our conversation focused on social theory, politics, and, most importantly, Black liberation. In the middle of the conversation, my friend turns to my bookshelf and notices a copy of Bruce Perryâ€™s 1991 biography on Malcolm X.
â€œIs it good?â€ he asked.
â€œYes. It was helpful for showing how complex Malcolm was.â€
â€œYeah. Especially around sexualityâ€
â€œWhat you mean?â€
â€œYou know, about Malcolm being bisexual.â€
â€œGet the f$&% outta here!â€
I had set it off.
For more than an hour, I, like Perry, argued that Malcolm was likely a closeted gay or bisexual man. Why? Because, according to very good sources, Malcolm engaged in many same sex encounters before his conversion to the Nation of Islam.
For example, childhood schoolmate Bob Bebee recounts an interaction between him, Malcolm, and a local boy who they caught masturbating. Malcolm, Bebee recalled, ordered the boy to masturbate him, and later bragged that the boy had given him oral sex. Numerous sources, including close family members, confirm that Malcolm earned money by â€œservicing queers.â€ According to Malcolm’s sidekick Malcolm (â€œShortyâ€) Jarvis, he was paid to sprinkle a wealthy Boston bachelor with talcum powder and bring him to orgasm.
Malcolmâ€™s acts werenâ€™t always done for pecuniary reasons. In Flint, his former roommate said, Malcolm would often go down the hall and sleep with Willie Mae, a gay transvestite. Also, scholars like Perry have argued that Malcolmâ€™s misogyny, masculine insecurity, and early dissatisfaction with male-female sex are signals of a latent homosexuality. Others point to his obsessive-compulsive work habits, shaky relationship with his wife Betty, and celebrated sexual restraint (X is often constructed as the anti-King) as evidence of sublimation and suppression.
Of course, my friend wasnâ€™t convinced. First, he argued that the sources werenâ€™t legitimate. I pointed out that these were his closest friends and family. Also, each source, many of whom didnâ€™t know the other sources, provided a consistent narrative about Malcolmâ€™s queer identity. Besides, I asked, what evidence do we have to the contrary? He then argued that this might be part of a government conspiracy or a ploy to sell books. I pointed out that neither Perry nor his informants ever sensationalized the information (think Ralph Abernathy). In fact, Perry doesnâ€™t even mention it on the bookâ€™s cover, nor does â€œsexualityâ€, â€œgayâ€, or â€œhomo-â€œ appear in the index. It seems that Perry is more interested in establishing a clear and fair historical record than drawing attention to Malcolmâ€™s sexuality.
Put more simply, if people in power were trying to sensationalize the topic, people would know about Malcolmâ€™s sex life with the same regularity that they know about Martin Luther Kingâ€™s. The fact is, most people don’t know that this is even an issue.
After a while, my friend conceded that it â€œmight be trueâ€, which for him is a huge concession. He then argued that if he could further verify the story, he would use it as evidence that â€œanybody can turn their life around and live correctly.â€
He totally missed the boat.
First, he saw Malcolmâ€™s suppressed sexuality through the NOIâ€™s puritan sexual ethic as a positive act. What he failed to recognize, however, was the potentially deleterious effect that such moves have on the very communities that he thinks are protected by closeted sexuality. Even Malcolm, who is an exemplar of morality and discipline of world-historical proportions, had problems in his personal life as a likely consequence of his secrets. Imagine the possibilities for the regular citizen who lacks Malcolmâ€™s moral vision and religious zeal. While Iâ€™m not a big fan of the current discourse surrounding the â€œdown-low,â€ one must concede that such repression contributes to the so-called crisis. By encouraging people to enter the closet (a la Donnie McClurkin), we help constitute the very people that we ultimately blame.
Also, in constructing Malcolm X as a â€œreformed queer,â€ as opposed to a gay/bisexual hero, he squandered a valuable opportunity to reimagine Black masculinity and help expand the realm of political possibilities for Black gays and lesbians. Contrary to what is often said, acknowledging who and what Malcolm really was will not tarnish his legacy.
If anything, it will make him more meaningful and accessible than ever.