Yusaf Mack once made his family proud. He was the kid who could fight, and he used that skill to parry the stranglehold of poverty, addiction, and violence that entwined so many other young black men in West Philadelphia. Between 2000 and 2014, Yusaf was a professional boxer; for fourteen years he represented his hometown across the US and around the world, felling opponents as he claimed titles for our country. But though Yusaf was loved and admired, there was a part of him that he hated.
Yusaf is attracted to transgender women, and he has been since nineteen years old. Ashamed by that fact, and knowing that it might jeopardize his reputation in the eyes of his peers, he barricaded his sexuality behind an ultra-masculine persona: In the ring, Yusaf brutalized other men for a living, and in the bedroom, the self-proclaimed "whoremonger" fathered ten children. When he and I met this winter, the former athlete seemed hopeful yet emotionally wounded. "Everybody looked at me as this hero," he said. "This dude that got all the girls. I just didn't want to mess my reputation up, and I would have took it to my grave because it would have never came out."
Yusaf retired from boxing two years ago, but he's still dodging punches. Now, however, he says that old friends and members of his own family throw them. From Yusaf's apartment in Los Angeles—where he moved last fall after the scandal surrounding his sexuality hurtled him onto the media's hit list—he dances between personal blows, trying to make his family proud of him again.
The importance put on bravado and dominance during male adolescence encouraged Yusaf to be tough in a world where violence was not uncommon, and where at times it was extreme. On December 28th, 2000, four gunmen slaughtered the inhabitants of a local crack house on Lex Street in West Philly. The mass murder came to be known as the Lex Street Massacre. Of the ten people lined up and shot that day, seven died. Many of them, Yusaf told me, were members of his family.
He began boxing in his uncle's basement at seven years old and went pro at twenty—just one year after he realized he was attracted to trans women, and one month before the Lex Street Massacre claimed the lives of his cousins. Thirteen years later, in the fall of 2014, with 17 KO wins and a mere 8 losses, Yusaf retired. In a 2014 interview immediately following the last of four consecutive losses, Yusaf, wet with sweat, quietly announced the end of his boxing career. "I got caught with too many shots, I'm done. I'm done," he said, and settled into life out of the public eye.
He's never been interested in men, per se, but Yusaf says that the body of a trans woman—from her tits, to her hips, and, yes, her dick—is beautiful to him. Despite his attempt to keep this affection concealed, his best-kept secret became national news in October of 2015 when it was exposed that Yusaf had performed in a gay porn film. Though he's not into men, Yusaf is sexually open-minded. He told me that he needed the money and would have performed in any sort of porn for the $4,500 the film earned him.
On a day like any other, in October of 2015, Yusaf arrived at his grandma's bar in Philadelphia, as he had many times over the years. But, unlike during all his prior visits, he quickly realized that his family and friends were looking at him differently this time. Someone took him aside and explained that the media was reporting on a gay porn film in which he was, apparently, one of the performers. Unable to deny that he was indeed in the video, Yusaf admitted that he intended to shoot a porn film but claimed that, prior to shooting, he was led to believe it would be heterosexual. He alleged that he was drugged upon arrival at the porn company's studio and was thus unconscious as the "straight" porn turned gay without his consent.
Yusaf fed the same story to the press. On October 28, 2015, Philly.com reported that Yusaf's gay porn performance had caused a "local scandal" in Philadelphia. Though he was trying to protect himself and his family, Yusaf's yarn inadvertently caused the story to splatter across national headlines, from Gawker to the New York Daily News.
I cry every day about my youngest daughter. I just want to hear her voice.
Yusaf's disturbing claims about being drugged were heavily scrutinized, conjuring a litigious whiplash by the porn film's production company. Two days after the story broke, DawgPoundUSA plainly denied his allegations: "The claims made by Mr. Mack are false, slanderous, and vehemently denied on our part. We intend to take all legal steps necessary to protect our good name and reputation against these patently false and preposterous claims." Less than a week later, on November 4, Yusaf retracted his allegations, admitting that he'd lied about being drugged.
Though his hands have laid men to waste, Yusaf is not forceful. Alone with me in his home, he was reticent and soft-spoken. "It was the first thing that came into my head," he told me, sunk into a leather sofa. In his grandmother's bar, surrounded by his family and friends, Yusaf was ashamed and, desperate to keep his secret concealed, picked the first lie he could think of.
He lived in secret with his sexuality because he feared that if anyone knew, they would reject him—and he was right. In an interview with FOX29, Yusaf recounted a conversation that he had with his daughter after this scandal began. According to him, she said, "Kill yourself. You embarrass us." He says she later apologized.
The struggle with his family was a crippling blow, he said. It struck so hard and swiftly that he thought it could not be countered. For a time, Yusaf agreed with his child. "You right," he told her, and hung up the phone.
Yusaf told me that one of his exes refuses to let him see his four-year-old girl; however, his older kids, who he says aren't being influenced by the opinions of their mothers, have been very supportive. "I cry every day about my youngest daughter," he said. "I just want to hear her voice."
Five days after he said he had been drugged, Yusaf bowed out from the fight for his fallen persona. In an eloquent statement issued to gay news site TowelRoad, he came out as bi and advocated for others who are hiding their lifestyles from the world. "My life was completely destroyed once it had been outed that I participated in a gay film," he wrote. "I selfishly tried to cover the truth and remain in denial, rather than accept the fact that I was leading a double life secretly." But then the story changed slightly. Two days later, on November 4, he came out as gay. "I'm gay, I'm tired of holding it in, it is what it is, I live my life, I'm gay," he said.
Labels aside, Yusaf didn't speak in detail about the kind of people he's attracted to until the end of November, when he explained in a filmed interview that he's interested in transgender women and not, as it were, "nobody muscle, like me."
"He's not gay," said Jen Richards, a writer, filmmaker, and nationally celebrated transgender activist, in an interview with Broadly. Richards was on Caitlyn Jenner's docu-series, I am Cait, and is one of the minds behind the narrative web series Her Story, which debuted in January of 2016 and deals thematically with trans women in relationships. When we spoke, she'd just landed in Boston from California to screen Her Story at Tufts University. From her hotel room, Richards contextualized Yusaf's actions and helped to flesh out the character profile of the trans amorous male community: men like Yusaf, who are so culturally obscure they're almost invisible.
"These men aren't interested in other men," Richards said pointedly. "They're interested in women, and that happens to include trans women." She believes that Yusaf has likely "internalized societal expectations." Richards added that, "Society is so fucking insistent that genitals equal gender that when we think of someone being with a pre-op trans woman, it becomes all about the penis, and that's what dictates their sexuality." But, according to her, just because some women have penises doesn't mean the men who have sex with them are gay. "If you're not attracted to men, men who look like men, then you're not gay." Richards said that she's slept with many men in her life—many of whom have worried about this.
To help these uncomfortable men, she'll often pull out a picture of a female-to-male transgender person—someone who is, and looks very much like, a man, despite his vagina. Richards asks these worried guys if they'd want to have sex with that person simply because he has a vagina. Of course, they always say, "Absolutely not," Richards told me. "It's the same fucking thing; if you're not attracted to him because he has a pussy, then your attraction to her because she has a cock doesn't make you gay."
In an on-camera interview, Yusaf said that Caitlyn Jenner, another decorated athlete, was a source of inspiration to him. Her transition encouraged him to come out of the closet. But he fumbled with finding the appropriate language to describe her; when Yusaf admiringly spoke of Jenner, he referred to her with male pronouns and also used the Olympian's former name, Bruce. Still, the statement that actually cemented Yusaf's ignorance on trans issues came when, later in that filmed interview, he spoke publicly of his attraction to trans women for the first time in his life. He had a nervous grin when he gushed. "My interest is trannies," he said boyishly. "I love trannies."
Yusaf says that he did not so much as kiss a trans girl until January 2016, when he met nightlife personality Sidney Starr at a nightclub in Atlanta. According to him, his first kiss with a trans woman came seventeen years after he first realized how badly he'd like to be with someone who is trans—and three months after his family first learned of his appearance in the porn video. His use of the slur "tranny," the fact that he misgenders Caitlyn Jenner, his assumption that his sexual attraction to trans women makes him gay: All of this points to a lack of education around transgender identity in the 21st century. LGBT Media Outlets and trans people on social media critiqued Yusaf's statements. Queerty wrote, "Yusaf, if you're reading, here's a little tip: If you are really, truly interested in earning the love and respect of a transwoman, try to refrain from using transphobic slurs like 'tranny.'"
I've never been called tranny in a negative way. When I get called tranny, it's by men who don't know better.
But complaining about the political incorrectness of Yusaf's use of words may be a distraction from what he's actually done by admitting his affection for trans women. "I put more emphasis on the actions, rather than the language in cases like this," Richards said. "As far as the whole 'tranny' debate goes, I've never been called tranny in a negative way. When I get called tranny, it's by men who don't know better."
Richards explained that the term "'tranny" is the language of sex work and porn, which are the two primary realms in which straight men find out that they like the idea of a girl with a cock. "It's what they were raised to believe," she said. "It's how the word is marketed—often their first knowledge of trans women."
"If they are caught—and it's always a matter of 'getting caught,' no one just openly talks about it— they have one of two recourses," Richards said, explaining that the men in Yusaf's position either deny their attraction to trans women, or, as Yusaf has done, "They just end up parroting back what society has told them: "Oh, well, I guess this makes me gay.'"
There have always been men who desire, have sex with, and love transgender women in secret. If trans amorous men have their own cultural tradition, it is their failure to keep their secret affairs with transgender women concealed forever. And when those secrets leak, the story breaks like it's a scandal. Of course, more often than not the "scandal" is simply that a heterosexual man has been romantically involved with a woman who is transgender.
Multiple such scandals have occurred among Yusaf's peers, including pro-basketball player Lamar Odom, former footballer Hank Baskett, soccer player Ronaldo, and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. And there are more still: Today show host Matt Lauer, the musician Teddy Pendergrass, the rapper Tyga, iconic DJ Mister Cee, Eddie Murphy, the husband of Bravo TV Star Kyle Richards, Gwen Stefani's husband and BUSH frontman Gavin Rossdale, J-Lo's boyfriend Casper Smart, and early 2000's pop star, Nick Lachey—all of these men were allegedly sexually involved with trans women.
Mister Cee's case is perhaps the prototypical trans "scandal." For years, he spun a web of deception that included arrests and lies while compulsively soliciting trans sex workers in New York City. When he finally admitted, in September 2013, that he had been involved with numerous trans women, his "confession" was stilted on the arbitrary technicalities that men, in desperation, rely on to salvage their lost masculinity. He insisted he isn't gay, but seemed to equate trans women with men, basing the assertion that he's straight primarily upon the specific (oral) sex act he engaged in with trans women and not, as one might expect, the gender of his sex partners. "It's no offense to transgender women, but I only get with transgender women for one thing and one thing only, and that's for oral sex. Like I said: I never had sex with a man. I never had sex with a transgender woman."
It's a headache trying to unpack his logic. Mister Cee's complicated justifications show the extreme pressure men feel to maintain the illusion that they are "real men" in a society that narrowly defines masculinity in (sexual) relation to cis femininity.
In Hollywood, in his home, Yusaf's speech is, as in other recent interviews, slow and purposeful. He pauses frequently and sometimes can't get a word to come out when he wants it to. "Boxing over the years messed with my speech a little bit, so that's why I take my time to talk," he said. "When I try to talk fast, it won't come out straight. When I settle down and talk slow everything comes out right. See I'm talking now and it's flowing. But when I get emotional—" Yusaf stopped speaking. He paused, then reflected on his years of denial, explaining that his infidelity and the lies he told about his sexuality were hurtful to those who love him the most. "A lot of people looked up to me," he said. "I let a lot of people down."
With ten children from six different women, Yusaf has many families that need him—to be a father, to be a fighter. He worries that his coming out has failed them in some way. "I let a lot of females down that I dealt with, [as well as] myself, my family, and my children," he said. "I just want to say that I'm sorry. When they see this interview, I want them to know that I'm sorry and I let a lot of people down. All I can do is live my life and move on."
Sidney Starr, the only trans woman that Yusaf says he has ever been with, did not return Broadly's request for comment, but she spoke of her experience with Yusaf in this filmed interview. "I physically see myself as a full-blown woman," she said. "I don't take my breasts off at the end of the night." Like Richards, Starr believes that men like Yusaf are heterosexual.
"Any man that deals with me is a straight, heterosexual male, because all you see is woman. All you see is breasts, pretty face, fat booty," she said. "Now you can't tell me that that's no fat booty," she added, standing up and spanking her ass. "What man goes in and out of that?" she asked, rhetorically. "He just is not into gay men. He's into women, or beautiful transgender women like myself. Other people might have other opinions, the haters—and fuck the haters."
Richards told me that all Americans, including trans amorous men like Yusaf and the haters Starr referred to, are force-fed a deluge of prescriptive gender norms. "There's no part of our culture that escapes that dichotomy in which men occupy a certain role that is masculine and aggressive, and women occupy a different role," she said, adding that this system places an inordinate amount of importance on the penis, which is regarded as the locus of masculine power. "The penis becomes a kind of cathexis that all this psychic energy is projected onto," Richards explained.
Though Yusaf says he loves trans women and that he's ready to live his life openly, he sometimes makes statements that seem as if he might actually be interested in being with men but won't consider it due to the fact it could make his children's social lives more difficult. "I hurt my kids enough by the video and all that," he said. "For them to have me holding hands walking on the street with a man? I can't do it."
He said something similar in an on-camera interview with VladTV, suggesting that he wouldn't want to hold hands with a man on the street out of respect for his children. In the background of the video an off-camera voice says, "So you're not free." A representative of VladTV confirmed with Broadly that the voice belongs to Anthony Cherry, Yusaf's manager. "It shouldn't matter who you love," Cherry says.
The Los Angeles apartment where Yusaf lives is high up in a towering building surrounded by palm trees. It is Cherry's home. The two met last fall, and their relationship is purely professional. Yusaf told me that Cherry saw the story break, then got in touch with him, offering to help put the broken pieces of Yusaf's life and career back together. "He's an angel on my shoulder," Yusaf said, his voice breaking again. Cherry came into his life at a time when he thought his life might end.
"I didn't want to live no more," he said quietly, smoothly, without the quavering his speech is often interrupted with. "I believe if I wouldn't have come out here, if I would've stayed in Philly, I'd be locked up or dead." Before Yusaf came to live with Cherry, he lived in his hometown of Philadelphia. After the scandal began in October, he says he temporarily lost his will to live and thought often of suicide. Cherry stepped in early on in this crisis to manage Yusaf's public persona, and he even offered the former boxer the opportunity to escape his old haunt and move to Los Angeles.
For a while, Yusaf's suicidal ideation persisted after his move into Cherry's LA home. "I was taking Percs, Xannies, Oxies... whatever you could get me, I was taking it just to get away from the pain," he said. Yusaf even considered jumping out a window in his new apartment. "It was on my mind so many days," he told me.
Cherry's support changed that. "Me being out here and [Anthony Cherry] accepting me in his house around his family, his friends—I'm so grateful for that," Yusaf said, explaining that his emotional health quickly improved with the support of his new manager. After he started living with Cherry, he said, he realized how selfish he was being, how his children are far more important than the loss of his reputation. "I didn't care. I didn't care about nothing until reality hit me, like I got kids."
I could've been anywhere right now, but I'm here.
At the moment, Cherry's career goals for Yusaf center on gay nightlife appearances—though he's open to pretty much anything, including reality television. In early November of 2015, shortly after he moved to LA, Yusaf hosted his own coming out party in gay-as-hell West Hollywood. TMZ approached him and Cherry on the street going into the bar, asking: "Are you still into ladies, or are you just into guys now?" There was a brief pause as Cherry leaned into Yusaf's ear and quietly directed him: "Living a new life. Period." And that's exactly what Yusaf then says in answer to TMZ: "I'm living a new life."
Because of the material and emotional support that Cherry has given Yusaf at the lowest point in his life, Yusaf considers him to be a blessing. But while Cherry's guidance and directive asides are well intentioned, they sometimes include an uninformed perspective on transgender women. "I always tell Anthony [Cherry] I could never date a man that looked like me," Yusaf said, explaining that Cherry sometimes "gets mad" at him for loving trans women.
In the filmed interview with Vlad TV, where Cherry's off-camera voice suggests that Yusaf is not yet free, Yusaf furrows his brow and shakes his head. "I'm comfortable, I just don't want no relationship with a man." But Cherry casually pontificates that Yusaf is still living in some degree of self-denial, and that his affection for trans women symbolizes that.
"I just don't. I don't want to live with no man," Yusaf repeats. Again, the disembodied voice of Cherry insists there has to be some underlying reason why Yusaf is disinterested in living with a man. Cherry delivers the final point in his argument, which is meant to convince Yusaf that trans women are really men, therefore Yusaf must be homosexual: "Sidney Starr, that's a man at the end of the day, when you take off all the makeup." In response, Yusaf lowers and nods his head; this is obviously something he's been told before in his life and something he's come to believe.
"There's no counter message," Richards said, explaining that Yusaf was likely told something similar by his peers, by his family, by movies, by the media, by the government: Trans women are equated with men everywhere in American society. It isn't surprising to Richards that some gay men would hold such prejudicial views, despite dealing with their own discrimination. "Gay men don't escape the same messages that we all receive about the roles of men and women and the gender of trans people," she said, adding that gay people, like straight people, internalize this ideology.
Richards doesn't use the word "transphobic." Sure, calling trans women men is "transphobic," Richards conceded, but, she explained, there's a far more accurate, incisive label to apply to that statement. "What it is, is a lie," Richards said. "It's just simply a lie. There's no evidence for it, it's a prejudice that gets reinforced by society. The fact is that Sidney [Starr] wakes up, goes throughout her day, and goes to bed as Sidney [Starr]. It's not a persona. Even if she does take off her makeup, she still goes to bed as a woman and wakes up as a woman and relates to people as a woman. She sees herself as a woman and the world sees her as a woman."
The fact that this story is so convoluted by labels, language, and politics is a consequence of the cultural obscurity of Yusaf's sexuality; the men who love trans women have been, and remain today, invisible in American society—invisible to us, to the women they love, to the gay community and, oftentimes, to themselves.
In order to sever Yusaf's love of trans women from the umbrella of homosexuality, I thought it might be helpful to return to the basics, however crude.
"So you like tits, you like a nice ass?" I asked him.
"Yeah, and I like dicks," Yusaf replied. Of course, this is a taboo thing for a man who loves women to say. It's taboo for a man from the world of pro-boxing to say—it's even taboo within some trans communities. "Even trans women often have ambiguous relationships to the men who pursue us," Richards said, explaining that many trans women want to be seen simply as women, so when a guy like Yusaf pursues trans women for the fact that they are trans, "we can feel both invalidated and fetishized," Richards said.
"We're desired for the very thing that separates us from cis women."
Because of this, she added, the men who love trans women are sometimes dismissed, "and often vilified, as 'tranny chasers.'" Richards says that she's witnessed many trans women call these guys "faggots" for liking them, "often in the wake of either rejection, or their refusal to be open about partnering with us." Though this may seem shocking to an outsider, Richards can understand why trans women have an emotional reaction.
Nonetheless, she says that shaming trans amorous men "unfortunately duplicates the most dangerous misconceptions about [trans women]." But her sympathy for the guys, men like Yusaf, is limited: "We could wipe out the stigma associated with trans women, and much of the violence, in a single stroke if all the men who hook up with us, hire us as escorts, and watch our porn, would stand up," she said. "They have that power, we don't."
"We are now at a point in our culture where it's better to lie about being gay than to be open about loving trans women," Richards said. "That's fucked up. That is deeply fucked up. Him being gay, and not attracted to men, causes less cognitive dissonance than him liking women and those women including trans women."
We are now at a point in our culture where it's better to lie about being gay than to be open about loving trans women.
"Anthony [Cherry] gets mad at me sometimes, because I love trans," Yusaf told me, before correcting himself: "I don't think he really gets mad, he's like, I got to make a decision." When I told Yusaf that the world is waiting for a man like him to speak with pride for their love of trans women, he told me that he wants to be that person. "If the door is open for me, I'm willing." He believes that if a professional athlete, or a public figure in a similarly masculine profession, had advocated for trans amorous men, it would have made it easier for him to accept himself and live openly earlier in his life.
The initial statement that Yusaf made at the start of this drama—the one where he came out as bi—is perhaps the most insightful take on his identity as a trans amorous man. His reason for performing in a gay porn film was simple and clear: "I needed money but also because I am a bisexual man, meaning I enjoy safely being intimate with whomever I choose."
The gay porn doesn't faze Richards, who pointed out that the idea of one's sex acts determining their identity is, historically speaking, a recent invention. "For so long, homosexuality was not an identity," she said. "It was just an act. So you could have a homosexual act and not be gay."
What did this man lose by admitting who he is? What made it so bad that he considered taking his own life? I asked him. "My masculinity," he answered without hesitation. The reason Yusaf wanted to die is because the world finally knew that he could not live up to the societal expectation of manhood. After he came out, he worried that it didn't matter that he was a fighter who's held titles for our country or that he had fathered ten daughters and sons with six women.
"Everybody knew who I was in boxing," Yusaf explained. "Being the man that I was, people look at me different now even though I can still fight," he said. "They might not say it, they might not approach me, but they look at me differently."
Yusaf says that some of his friends from the professional sports world have supported him, like Steve Cunningham, a pro boxer who has held national and world titles. "He's still my bro," Yusaf said. "We go out, he's still my dude. A lot of people called me that know me and was like, 'We still family, all of that don't matter to me.'" But, Yusaf added, other former friends have not been so loyal. Some, he says, have been kind to his face, but then talked badly of him to other people.
"I don't really care. End of the day, I'm going to get the last laugh regardless," Yusaf said. "How can you talk bad about anybody when your life isn't right? At the end of the day, it's like you're hating because I'm out here trying to do good and y'all still out in the hood trying to think of a way to get where I'm at."
"I'm comfortable, I'm happy, I got a good dude around me. He's a very, very good manager and a big brother to me. At the end of the day, we won, and won as a team. You can't break that up."
Like sexual and gender identity at large, this story has become far more complicated than it ever had to. But while the confounded public and the media machine have interrogated him in an attempt to understand his sexuality, Yusaf seems not to be very interested in conceptualizing his identity. To him, it's pretty simple: He'll have sex with whatever sort of people he wants to have sex with. That's how he felt when he did the gay porn. It just wasn't a big deal to him even though he's not attracted to men.
Because of the media coverage, Yusaf is picking up speed professionally once more. He's living in Hollywood, working with a manager to build up his new life, and he's toying with the idea of boxing again if the right fight comes along. Back when he was boxing he made a lot of money—as much as $100,000 for a single fight, he told me. But all that money was squandered, both on his lifestyle and on manipulative, false friends—people he invested in. He's not forgotten the way that people have taken advantage of his financial success in the past. And he suspects that some of the people that insult him, undermine him, and call him a "fag" behind his back today, are the same people who will come looking for a handout when he financially prospers again.
"The money that comes in, everybody going to knock. Then what? I'm the same dude, the 'faggot' you was calling me. Nah. You ain't gonna get none of this faggot's money," he said.
The last several months have been harrowing, but Yusaf isn't bitter. Today, his outlook on life is centered on turning hardship into triumph, on finding the positive in the negative, on surviving. "I feel like I accomplished something," he said. "I ain't got to hide no more. I like what I like, it is what it is." I asked him if he thinks the scandal, though traumatizing in the short term, was ultimately useful because it was a catalyst to his coming out, which ended the secrecy he was caged by.
Is life better this way?
"Yes and no," he told me. "I can't be who I was. Places I used to go, I can't go without people looking at me saying stuff under their breath. It's like, I don't care—but I do care, because I got to worry about my family and my kids. I'm not there to protect them so like, who they have? They don't have me. I'm out here, they there."
Yusaf is a spiritual person. He's been Muslim all his life—a gift from his older brother, who taught himself Arabic and gave Yusaf his name, which is derived from one of the prophets in the Quran. It means "god gives" and "god increases." "Going through life, you gotta believe in something," Yusaf told me. "If you don't believe in nothing, you gonna fail in everything."
He walked me out of his new home, into a hallway flooded with light. In true California fashion, Yusaf's building is both indoors and outdoors at once. The path dropped off beside us where a big, wall sized opening let in a warm winter breeze. "I always think, like, when we die, where do we go?" he said, looking down at the palms swaying in gentle circles below our feet. "Do we go to another planet or do we go somewhere else and start over again?" I asked Yusaf if he thinks there are other people out there in the universe on the other planets that we might go to when we die. "Me and my aunt were just talking about this," he said. "People on another planet looking at us like, Who the hell is them?"