The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Actor Malik Yoba wanted to support an upcoming transgender march. An accusation followed.

Malik Yoba at the Los Angeles premiere of "American Woman" on June 5. (Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Roadside Attractions)

Actor Malik Yoba wanted to lend his name to the National Trans Visibility March.

Recently, the 51-year-old actor of “New York Undercover” and “Empire” fame posted a video of a young man appearing to be the target of bullying outside a Philadelphia store. The 20-year-old was Maurice Willoughby, an aspiring rapper who had faced a backlash after declaring his love for his transgender girlfriend.

“I felt like it was time to put myself in the place of that young man,” Yoba said in an interview Tuesday. “If I could admit that publicly, other people would have permission to do the same.”

Yoba’s profession of his attraction to transgender women comes at a time when discussions about black men’s masculinity, sexuality and shame have garnered more attention following Willoughby’s death. Making the declaration at his own behest and without other sources claiming to have knowledge of his attraction is possibly a first among high-profile black male celebrities.

Yoba’s acknowledgment is an important step toward demarginalizing transgender people, said Tricia Rose, chancellor’s professor of Africana studies at Brown University.

“It blurs the presumed bright line between trans and heterosexuality,” she said.

Yoba’s public acknowledgment of his attraction to transgender women serves to affirm the womanhood of transgender women, said Marquis Bey, an assistant professor of African American studies at Northwestern University.

“For a celebrity to profess an attraction to trans women works to assert the gendered validity of trans women as not only women but women worthy of non-fetishistic desire,” he said.

The cheers and derision that met Yoba were followed by an allegation from a transgender woman who said she had engaged in sexual activity with the actor when she was a minor and a sex worker, allegations Yoba has denied.

Earlier this year, Willoughby professed his love for his transgender girlfriend on Facebook, captioning a picture of them that read: “Y’all can say whatever about Faith I really don’t care if she not passable I don’t care if she wasn’t born a woman she is a woman to me & I love her flaws that’s what makes her faith if you heard her story it’s motivating. … I’m happy you should be happy for me.”

Attacks on Willoughby followed, both online and in person, including an instance that was caught on camera in which men scornfully question his sexual behavior with transgender women.

Willoughby’s girlfriend said on an Instagram live stream last month that he had died. James Garrow, spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said the medical examiner has not issued a final ruling on the cause of death.

Yoba captioned the video and an article about Willoughby’s death to call attention to the unacceptable behavior. He announced he would attend the National Trans Visibility March in Washington later this month and said he finds himself attracted to transgender women.

“I too have felt the self-imposed shame that comes with that truth, but it’s time to speak up,” he said in the caption. The post has since been deleted from Yoba’s account.

Yoba followed up with another now-deleted Instagram post on Labor Day in which he thanked people who had reached out to him in support of his public acknowledgment, apologized to his three children for the “foul messages” they’ve been receiving since his posting and reiterated his support of transgender men and women.

The comments on the two posts ranged from expressions of thanks for his honesty to homophobic slurs.

Shortly after Yoba declared his attraction and support, a transgender woman wrote a Facebook post claiming that she had a sexual relationship with the actor when she was a teenage sex worker in New York decades ago. She alleged that Yoba paid her for sexual favors when she was 13 and 16 years old.

In a subsequent video, the woman said she chose to share her story “because he decided to say something,” noting that Yoba wasn’t the only celebrity client who had cruised the street where she worked in search of transgender women.

The woman did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual offenses without their consent.

While Yoba’s admission can be seen as revelatory, his declaration that he is being open and authentic could be countered if there is any truth to the allegation against him.

Bey said that if the allegation against Yoba is true, then it is a testament to the way black sexuality is linked to societal scrutiny and spectacle.

“Shame and stigma surrounding black cis male attraction to trans women is symptomatic of the general invalidating criticism black sex and sexuality is accosted by,” he said.

Yoba denies the woman’s allegations and says he doesn’t know who she is.

The actor said that he expected people to say “crazy” things after his posts but that he didn’t anticipate such allegations.

The accusation, he said, is a cry for help and an indication of the issues facing transgender youth: homelessness and sex work.

About 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, according to a 2012 Williams Institute report.

A December 2015 survey of 694 transgender adults found that nearly 11 percent reported participating in sex work, and an additional 2.3 percent indicated they had traded sex for rent or a place to stay.

Marissa Miller, lead strategic director for the National Trans Visibility March, said not enough is known about the accusation for march leaders to issue a statement.

The main agenda, Miller said, is the march and the 8,000 people who are expected to attend.

“For me, knowing what my intention is and the work that I’ve done, for someone to play in that space and try to defame, vilify [and] take a moment to do that, is heartbreaking,” Yoba said.

If there is an allegation of wrongdoing on Yoba’s part, a report should be filed, according to Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a spokeswoman for the New York Police Department.

“The NYPD takes child abuse, sexual assaults and rape cases extremely seriously, and urges anyone who has been a victim to file a report so we can perform a comprehensive investigation, and offer support and services to survivors,” she said in a statement.

Yoba said he’s not letting the “foolishness” that followed his announcement detract from the purpose of the march or his pursuit to improve the lives of transgender Americans.

He is co-hosting a workshop during the weekend of the march about what love looks like for transgender people with transgender TV personality and model Carmen Carrera — a friend who inspired him to live his life more authentically after they hung out on a float at a recent Pride Day parade, he said.

He is also negotiating a deal in Harlem that would provide housing for LGBT youths of color, he said.

Yoba said closeted transgender people and men who “love a little bit more fluidly” have reached out, often using the word “brave.”

“That comes from a very deep place for a lot of people,” he said.

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