When it comes to queer rights in America, the more things change socio-politically, the more they stay the same.
Barely a year in office, Trump’s administration withdrew protection for transgender student bathrooms, appointed legislators opposed to same-sex marriage, and put a stop to identifying LGBTQI people in the upcoming 2020 census. Resistance remains the most potent form of pushback, which is where media maverick Emil Wilbekin enters. Wilbekin—former editor-in-chief of both Vibe and Giant, and former managing editor of ESSENCE—spearheaded Native Son in 2016, a movement dedicated to “inspiration and empowerment within the Black gay [male] community.”
Since its founding just last year, Wilbekin launched a series of impactful Native Son Conversations (in Baltimore, New York City and St. Louis) and an annual Native Son Awards, saluting the achievements of Black gay men in media, entertainment and social activism. At Google’s NYC offices this Tuesday, November 28, the organization recognizes the intersection of Black gay men and technology. Wilbekin speaks with ESSENCE about the origins of Native Son, religious faith and spiritual guiding force James Baldwin.
Speak about last year’s launch of Native Son.
I founded Native Son in 2016 because I felt like I was time for Black gay men to own their truth and their power in the world. There really was an activism part of me that felt like we needed inspiration and empowerment within the black gay community, so that we could also then have more visibility and control our narrative in the world. This is when Moonlight was coming out, and I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for an Oscar, so there was a lot happening. It just felt like it was our time in the world to be seen and heard.
Richard Wright wrote Native Son, but James Baldwin published the essay collection Notes of a Native Son in 1955. How was Baldwin an influence on the Native Son movement?
I chose James Baldwin to kind of be our icon for Native Son, because Notes of a Native Son to me really speaks to Mr. Baldwin’s brilliance. Because he is critical of race issues, he is critical of the Black church, he is critical of popular culture and how Black people are depicted in Hollywood. But what I really love is that he was also self-critical. And that, to me, seems like a very important foundation to build this movement on. Baldwin was a black gay man, he was a brilliant writer, poet, playwright and activist. He was very active in the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King and with Bayard Rustin. And so with the times we’re living in, I felt like if we were creating a movement that included visibility, our narrative, and social justice, we needed to pay homage to James Baldwin.
We’re members of the same Harlem church. How was faith a factor in creating Native Son?
So, I have been on a spiritual journey for the last five years. I joined First Corinthian Baptist Church two years ago, and have since become very active in the church. One day, pastor Mike Walrond asked me to be a part of his series called The Journey with Pastor Mike. And he wanted to talk to me about my professional journey working at Vibe, about Native Son specifically, and kind of how Black gay men are perceived in church and how we walk in our faith.
It was very powerful. I revealed in the conversation that I had been HIV positive for the last five years. I revealed that I had been adopted. And I talked a lot about the importance of Native Son and James Baldwin, because Pastor Mike is very engaged around Black culture, Black writers and social justice. So to be able to sit on the altar of my church with my pastor and have this type of conversation shows the importance of my church and my movement.
Speak to me about the most impactful Native Son conversation.
The most important Native Son conversation that we’ve had to date was a panel discussion entitled Stay Woke: Black Gay Men—Our Voice and Our Power in the Age of Trump. This conversation was really important because it brought together the community of Black gay men and allies, and we really talked about how we stand up for ourselves with issues of social injustice, issues with immigration, and HIV criminalization.
What was so powerful to me was, the room was over 100 people here in New York City, and people left and said, “I’ve never been in a safe space where I was able to have these kinds of conversations with other Black gay men.” That’s really a big emphasis of Native Son to me: creating safe spaces for us to have conversations that are relevant to us.
The other thing that’s important to note for ESSENCE.com is that a lot of the values that I am incorporating into Native Son are things that I learned working at ESSENCE. I sat in so many meetings and events and saw how Black women supported each other and poured into each other. And I thought, this could be transferable to Black gay men. Because it’s really about fellowship, organizing, community, culture and self-actualization.
Tell us about your tech event with Google, top to bottom.
I wanna show the diversity and breadth within the Black gay community, because we’re not myopic and we’re not monolithic. So we’ve partnered with Google on a panel discussion about Black gay men in technology. We have really amazing panelists who work in different areas of tech. Warren Satchell is the men’s fashion editor at Amazon Fashion; Marcus Mabry—who is the director of mobile news programming at CNN Digital—is on the panel, [and] used to be at The New York Times and Newsweek and Twitter; Antonious Porch, who is the general counsel at Shazam; and James Felton Keith, one of the founders of Slay TV running for the house of representatives in Harlem.
The point is that it’s really important that Black gay men are informed about technology as a career possibility and as a way that we engage in technology so that we can move forward, and our voice can be heard and seen throughout multiple platforms.