Actor Malik Yoba stormed off the set during an on-camera interview with The Root Friday after being asked about allegations that he solicited sex from a minor who engaged in survival sex work in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The walkout was also seemingly triggered by questions about his motives for publishing an Instagram post that declared his love and attraction for trans women, which has since been deleted.

During the conversation at The Root’s studios, The Root asked Yoba to respond to a Facebook post by Mariah Lopez Ebony, in which she accuses the actor of soliciting sex from her at ages 13 and 16. Yoba said, “I don’t know the woman,” and “I have no idea who she is.” In a phone interview with The Root on Saturday, Lopez, now 34, stood by her claims, saying her first sex act with Yoba took place at age 13, and the second act occurred at age 16.

Lopez was born April 27, 1985, so the first sexual act would have likely taken place in 1998 and the second act in 2001. Lopez is a long-time trans rights activist and executive director of STARR, the Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform, founded by trans pioneers Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Lopez alleges Yoba, now 52, would drive around New York’s Greenwich Village area looking for trans women to pay for sex.

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Here is an excerpt from Lopez’s Facebook post:

I started seeing him personally, with my own two eyes, cruising around the meatpacking district and Village, large black Jeep, looking for Trans fem sex workers, he preferred black trans girls; pretty, slim girls, but would pick up a latinx if she was put together and/or looked mixed.

That was close to 20 years ago, and I can still remember it like yesterday. i also remember the day a friend of mine said, real cool, like she was known to do “.......walk down that block..Just go! He wants You.....”. You always remember celebrity clients. It’s like time slows down. You remember every detail, Blood pounding. He was cute, and polite, don’t get me wrong. But I’m sure he knew what he was doing, was Wrong.....

The first time Lopez claims she had sex with Yoba for pay took place in 1998 in either the West Village or the Meatpacking District, when an adult sex worker escorted her to Yoba’s “larger black SUV or jeep” that may have been a Ford Explorer or Excursion. Lopez says the woman who took her to Yoba’s vehicle is unwilling to speak publicly for fear of legal reprisals for her involvement in the transaction between Yoba and Lopez, and that the woman has secured legal counsel. Once Lopez entered the car, Yoba handed her $80 for sex. She declined to go into details of exactly what took place.

“I will say, that based on my personal experience in the instance you’re inquiring about but also my further knowledge of him personally, he has a proclivity for sexual intercourse that is homoerotic,” says Lopez.

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Lopez also noted that Yoba wanted to engage in the sex act without protection. She further recounts that she normally charged “a bill,” or $100, for the act, but that Yoba only had $80 at the time of the encounter.

During the second meeting, Lopez said Yoba parked in the Greenwich Village area where she was working, turned off his lights, and stared at her, which she says is a common way for clients to pick up sex workers. Lopez walked by his car and he told her to get in, she said.

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“When I got in the car and he recognized who I was, he was slightly annoyed because I am not necessarily a ‘good ho,’” one who would let him dictate the terms of the encounter unchallenged.

Yoba insisted on picking the route to the location where the act would take place, Lopez said. “Sometimes you go in the car and you direct the client where to go,” she said. “Not only was he a veteran-ass trick, so it was not surprising that he wanted to choose the route; but also just being a celebrity, you let them drive always, [and] he had a very specific route, a circle of comfort, a zone.”

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Lopez said they ended up in a Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood park, where they engaged in a sexual act for pay. Yoba tried to not use protection, but Lopez was able to convince him otherwise, she says.

Another black trans woman, Ja’nese Bussey, who performed sex work with Lopez during the late 1990s and early 2000s, told The Root in a separate phone interview Saturday that Lopez told her she performed sex acts with Yoba for pay soon after the first act took place. Bussey confirmed Lopez was 13-years-old at the time. On two occasions, Bussey, who says she went by the name “Charisse” during her time as a sex worker, said Yoba gave her money in exchange for sex. He also asked her if she could find him “teenage girls” for sex, Bussey claims.

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Bussey, 40, said that there was no doubt that Lopez looked underage at the time the first alleged sex act with Yoba took place. “She looked 10,” Bussey added.

A representative for Yoba said in a statement to The Root that the actor “categorically denies all allegations and will not respond, beyond this comment, to requests for comment.”

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It is not uncommon for underage trans teens to enter survival sex work because their parents often kick them out because they refuse to accept their trans identity. Polaris Project finds that the average age of entry into sex work is 19-years-old, but that is a general figure that is not specific to trans sex workers. Diamond Collier, a board member of Black Transwomen Inc., says it is not uncommon for trans children to enter sex work at 13 years old and that she herself was faced with a choice of entering a group home or doing sex work after she transitioned as a teen.

“In that moment, I was given that option to get into sex work or [go to the group home]. So there’s a lot of situations where girls have no other options,” said Collier, who also performed sex work, starting at age 23 until she was 28. “Trans girls, especially back in the day, couldn’t go to shelters that were for guys or girls. They didn’t have anywhere to go. And sometimes some of the LGBTQ shelters didn’t take you back in the day unless you were HIV-positive. So how the system is set up, it forces girls to get in that kind of work.”

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In Yoba’s on-camera interview with The Root, he gave this response to Mariah’s Facebook allegations:

The Root [7:11]: Since creating these posts, you’ve received a mixture of support and criticisms. On a more serious note, a trans woman named Mariah Lopez Ebony wrote a Facebook post in which she accused you of soliciting sex from her as a minor when she was both 13 and 16 years old. What do you have to say to this allegation?

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Yoba [7:34]: I say that, you know, when I heard that, and I actually didn’t read it until last Thursday, what she actually said, I don’t know the woman, number one…

The Root [7:44]: So, you’re saying you never met her, you don’t know her?

Yoba [7:47]: That’s exactly what I am saying. I don’t know her. I have no idea who she is. I am familiar with that pain, I’m familiar with that trauma. I’m familiar with people who are crying out for help. I’m familiar with the lack of regard for this population, which is, again, my point. So, when I heard it, for me, to hear something so heinous, right, number one, and to see someone post something with no proof of anything and to see the world embrace it, or a portion of the world embrace it, that toxicity, speaks exactly to the reason I do the work that I do.

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So, it’s an oxymoron almost. It’s like wow, the first cis-gender man who stands up for the community and gets attacked by that community. But that’s true for anybody that’s ever stood up for oppressed people. It’s happened to Gandhi. It’s happened to Mandela. It’s happened to Marcus Garvey. It’s happened to Malcolm X. It’s happened to anyone who has said, ‘I am gonna stand up for these oppressed people.’ Think about who we are, right? There was a time we couldn’t drink from water fountains, we couldn’t sit on the bus. Think about how ridiculous that is. And so, for me, having a view of a community that I grew up with and seeing the suffering. The very thing that motivates me to help people out of it is something someone tried to accuse me of…

When The Root tried to interject, Yoba interrupted.

Yoba [9:11]: I wanna finish the point. So, the point is to be on the other side of that tells me that the work has to continue and the blessing will be greater because the truth will always outweigh a lie. Right? So the truth is people are suffering. The truth is there are kids in the street. Right? But the other truth is for my entire life, I am someone who has been working with young people since I was 16 years old, making sure that there are better pathways for other people, so, that’s a very loaded question for you to ask me that and we discussed that before.

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At this point in the interview, it was emphasized that Yoba and The Root had established an understanding during an initial Sept. 16 conversation regarding the allegations between Yoba and senior reporter Terrell Jermaine Starr, as well as the negative perceptions of him in the trans community. A wider conversation about his activism and his upcoming projects were also discussed in that meeting with Yoba and his publicists, and it was stated that these issues would be discussed in the Sept. 20 interview.

The interview took a turn when The Root asked Yoba if he worried people would perceive his answer to the assault allegations as centering himself.

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Yoba [10:17]: Yeah, you know, um, this is a bullet wound. Right? We’re on 45th Street and Broadway. I got shot five blocks from here at the age of 15. Right? A quarter of an inch over I would have been paralyzed from the neck down. A half-inch over I’d be dead. So, since January 18, 1983, I’ve never taken a second for granted to be alive. I can’t even count how many people who are no longer here I grew up with that I’ve known. Numbers? I don’t even know how many it is. Right? And so life is precious and each moment is precious. So for someone who has long understood the power of thought and the power of intention, the ability to manifest my life the way I’ve wanted to. I never had a job I didn’t want. I’ve never had to work just to make money. Every single thing I’ve done in my life, whether I was a bike messenger, you know, working with young people, making movies, TV, working in education, working with the criminal justice system, working environment, working with fathers. Any social issue, professional pursuit, every single thing I’ve done it’s because it’s an intention. And I followed the intention and I chased the purpose, right?

And so, to stand up in the face of someone saying that you’re this when I know I am this, I also felt, Wow. That’s kinda how it feels like to be transgender [12:14]. Right? Can you imagine walking into the world, looking the way you and I do, but feeling inside that something is not lining up and you need to address that. The way you present in the world and you don’t look so good.

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The Root [12:30]: I don’t think I could ever or anybody who is cisgender could ever place themselves in a trans person’s position.

Yoba [12:37]: I think we can because I had to do it on New York Undercover. So, on New York Undercover, we did an episode where people were killing transgender people. So we actually had to dress and go into the world… 

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The Root [12:50]: That’s fiction, though. That’s not real life.

Yoba [12:53]: Yeah, but you’re missing my point. You’re making your point. The point that I’m making is that you asked me what does it feel like to stand up in the face of this. And I’m telling you that if I am this and someone is calling me this, that is akin to a transgender woman being called a man.

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The Root [13:14]: Do you really make that comparison?

Yoba [13:17]: I do. You may not make it but I’m making the comparison because I sat in it. I know what it’s like for people to try and yell at me and tell me I’m gay, to tell me I’m a pedophile, to tell me what I’m not. And I have to stand up to that. And the only thing I can do is stand up with the truth. And, so, when you feel that pain, when you walk down the street and people are basically saying, ‘Fuck you’ and you still walk on your purpose, that’s empowering. As painful as it is, it’s also empowering. And so when I talk to my transgender friends and they have people tell them what they’re not and they’re telling you that they are, that’s painful for them too.

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So if I am gonna be the person, the first one, to stand up and take the hits. I know what it feels like and I feel I have the right to say, yes, as I stand alongside you, I do understand your pain. Not on an intellectual level but on an experiential level. I was walking down the street the other and someone said ‘Happy Birthday, AIDS victim.’ They screamed that out of a window to me. I lost work because of this, just like trans people. I have people look at me sideways just like trans people. I have people calling me gay, just like trans people. So I have the right to tell you exactly how it feels if I choose to stand up with these folks that I love and appreciate and consider part of my humanity. And I can tell you what it feels like.

The Root went on to ask Yoba about allegations from trans sex workers who claimed that he solicited sex from them. Yoba replied that he didn’t know what the reporter was talking about. When asked how he reacts to criticisms that he does not actually care for trans people and that he fetishizes trans women, Yoba became demonstrably upset.

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Yoba walked away from his chair, threw his microphone to the floor, yelled “fuck you” to this reporter and the production team and demanded that he be given the SD video cards that recorded the interview, which The Root’s producers refused to do.

Witnesses to Yoba’s profanity-laced meltdown were two video producers for The Root, two people representing Yoba, his 18-year-old daughter, and The Root’s senior video producer. Yoba’s publicists and The Root’s video producers tried to calm him down, but Yoba continued cursing until he finally left the studio.

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Yoba is scheduled to co-host a workshop leading up to the Trans National Visibility March this Thursday amid criticisms that his presence and the allegation by Lopez will take up space that is supposed to be focused on trans people. Trans activists have expressed concerns to The Root that Yoba has not demonstrated adequate knowledge to speak on behalf of trans issues and that his public statements are designed to elevate himself at trans people’s expense.

Collier says that she was very proud of Yoba when he published his Instagram post expressing his love for trans women and the need for more black men to follow his lead. But she is not familiar with any of his work in the trans community during her 20 years of national organizing.

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“Conversations around Malik Yoba have centered around his participation in consenting adult sex work,” Collier said. “In the community, he is known to be a client. He’s known to be a nice guy. He’s known to be somebody that fetishizes us. I haven’t heard anything bad. Mariah was the first story that was weird and bad.”

In media interviews, Yoba has mentioned Tiq Milan, a black trans activist in New York City, as someone who he has spoken to about trans issues. Milan, who is a trans man, told The Root that he could not speak to Yoba’s activism in the trans community and that he has only known him for a month after reaching out to thank him for his Instagram post. Despite the negative perceptions Milan has heard about Yoba, he said it was important for the actor to speak out.

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“I think Malik’s story is important,” Milan said. “I also think that it is a part of a larger conversation about the culture of lovelessness around transgender people, the homicide rate of black transgender women and expanding our outlook and definitions of love, desire, and masculinity.”

Many trans women have gone on social media to question Yoba’s sincerity and motives. Sharon L. Cooks, a transgender woman who works as a business consultant in Philadelphia, said in a Facebook video that Yoba’s recent statements of being attracted to trans women are a publicity stunt.

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“Let’s be very clear on what’s going on here,” Cooks said in her video. “Where was Malik in the ’90s when it wasn’t so popular? Where was Malik Yoba when he was 26 and he was liking women of trans experience? Where was he?”

In a statement to The Root, organizers of the Trans National Visibility March said that Yoba was not directly involved with the march, adding:

“We do respect the fact that Malik Yoba stood out to support himself and men like him. There currently is not a visible platform for trans amorous men and the work that Malik Yoba is doing is necessary. However, we believe that our work should be intersectional and that includes bridging the gaps and making space for other identities to be visible. It is not our duty to create space for them at this time when we are creating a visible space for ourselves. As leaders, it is our duty to be intersectional in our work and not exclusionary. We have a duty to fight for the liberation of all people but we must first stand for ourselves and heal. This is why we march!”

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Still, Collier is concerned that the national attention Yoba has brought to the trans community may be doing more harm than good.

“You have a community that is ravaged with ridicule,” said Collier, who is the creator and host of the podcast Marsha’s Plate. “You have people doing comedy specials ridiculing us on the public mainstage. You have people burning us up in cars. It is a community that is in desperation for somebody. And it can be anybody, somebody stepping up and proud of loving us, being friends with us, being an ally with us. We kind of automatically prop them up in a position of admiration, in a position of bravery, a position of gratitude. We appreciate them doing that.

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“But the problem with that is a lot of people who want to be allies, who want to be partners with us in this activism work, don’t have the cultural competency to actually do the work in a way that is not harmful. So when I saw those videos and I saw what was happening on the (Breakfast Club interview), it seemed like [Yoba] and the host were not socially equipped to handle the level of conversation that’s needed to push the culture forward when it comes to black trans people, black trans love, and particularly black trans women. They don’t have the experience. He’s done work with his career. He’s done work around himself. But in regards to our particular community, he’s not doing work. I don’t believe that at all.”

The Root editor Angela Bronner Helm contributed reporting to this story.

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About the author

Terrell Jermaine Starr

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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