In honor of Pride Month, Emil Wilbekin, an accomplished media professional and former ESSENCE Editor-at-Large, launched a virtual Black Gay Leadership Forum through his organization NATIVE SON. The day-long event is meant to create fellowship among Black gay men who have been uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital forum will host the top 100 Black gay leaders, business executives, activists, entrepreneurs, media, and academics – a first of its kind event.

Wilbekin spoke to ESSENCE about the importance of the forum and why it’s so needed at a time like this. “Myself and a lot of my brothers from the NATIVE community have been living in isolation,” he says. “We also are very aware that in the Black gay community that mental health is a big challenge. So we’re living in very stressful and traumatic times.”

Additionally, Wilbekin says, Black gay men living with HIV or AIDS are worried about contracting the coronavirus. “A lot of them don’t have healthcare,” he says. “So they’re [thinking], ‘if I get sick, have to go to the hospital and I’m already HIV positive, what does that look like?'”

Luckily, Wilbekin and his team have tapped some of the best and brightest in healthcare to answer some of these pressing questions. Representatives from amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, Gilead Sciences and Otsuka Pharmaceuticals are joining in on the discussion to dissect Black health in the age COVID-19.

Wilbekin also believes there’s an opportunity for Black gay men to be more included in the current conversations about racial inequality and social justice. “If you look back at the history of when there has been civil and social unrest in this country, Black gay men have been at the forefront,” he says. “Think about Bayard Rustin, who worked with Dr. King and organized the March on Washington in 1963. There’s James Baldwin, who was a big part of the civil rights movement. I think about Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam during the AIDS crisis, and 2014 in Ferguson with Black Lives Matter, and how to DeRay McKesson and Darnell Moore we’re out on the front lines. For me, this is a time for Black gay men to step up because that is what our ancestors have done. And also, this is a time for us to be heard.”

While Wilbekin believes strides have been made for Black gay men in the pop culture and political arenas, he thinks having a safe space for Black gay men to uplift each other is paramount. “A lot of the work that NATIVE SON does is about creating a community for ourselves, to empower ourselves, to affirm ourselves,” he says. “And then we can go into the world and make change.”

To get involved with or support NATIVE SON, visit their newly launched website and follow them on Instagram.

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