In the 1986 essay “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart,” Joseph Beam famously wrote some of the most important words to ever be spoken to black queer men: “Black men loving black men is a revolutionary act.”
For the better part of his life, Emil Wilbekin has been the walking and talking embodiment of these very sentiments, carving out a space in a media market traditionally dominated by white men, helping to birth some of the biggest movements in black creativity while serving as a founding editor of Vibe magazine, editor at large of Essence, and editor in chief at Giant magazine. Wilbekin understands what it means for him to be visible and a representation for a community that has often had to live in the shadows.
“Live in your truth,” is the first piece of advice Wilbekin offers to the new generation of black queer and gay men who stand upon his shoulders. “Don’t let anyone tell you what you aren’t. Be really proud of who you are because you stand on the shoulders of a lot of men who didn’t have the freedom to be their most authentic selves as black queer men.”
Wilbekin comes from very humble beginnings, adopted at 8 months old to “wonderful parents” who poured into him lessons about “being a good person, being a good black person, a good Christian, but most importantly a good man.” The latter is where Wilbekin met his first struggle. As his homosexual expression became more apparent in his teen years, it became clear it was viewed at odds with those admonitions to be a good man. At age 21, he officially came out to his parents, a moment his mother — the person Wilbekin refers to as the closest in his life — did not take well. “She was reading passages from the bible and crying, and it really put some distance in our relationship. When you see pics of me growing up I was always with my mother.”
Wilbekin saw two options. Stay. Or run. It was the words of his brother that made him stay and the challenge to “educate them about what it meant to be gay, and to be patient and compassionate with them. Through many, many years of my own therapy and kind of pushing back and forcing the issue about not just my gayness, but the community, my mother and father finally came around.”
With this support, Wilbekin found the courage to do even more for his black queer and gay community creating Native Son — named in homage to Notes of a Native Son, the collection of essays by James Baldwin, who Wilbekin references as “the first person that allowed me to know that I could be who I was and be seen.”
For Wilbekin, Native Son is a “movement and a platform to bring black gay and queer men together to be in a safe space. I felt that there was this discomfort between black queer men with each other when we are out socially, and we had limited spaces to be in the light and interact with each other outside of chat rooms and bars. I think it’s important that as a marginalized community, we build ourselves up to empower, inspire, and support each other. I’ve seen it in white spaces and felt, why don’t we have that? So I decided to create it.”
It was at the first Native Son Awards (created to honor black gay men in activism, media, and entertainment) in 2016, that Wilbekin would reveal one of his biggest secrets to the world: he was a person living (and thriving) with HIV.
“It was scary to disclose my status,” Wilbekin admits. “Some of my friends knew and some family, but I had just never publicly disclosed. I was less scared about how people would react to me but more fearful because I had to tell my mother. I’ve carried the virus for more than 15 years and I’m healthy and I go to the doctor, but I felt ashamed I didn’t tell my mother. The person closest with me and that’s where I felt uncomfortable. I disclosed at the Native Son Awards because I felt how could I lead a movement and not live my truth fully? I wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t have given that speech because I know for people who are HIV-positive, they live with this shame.”
Wilbekin recalls the day after disclosing how walking in New York, “everything was in technicolor. I could for the first time feel my feet on the pavement. It was like a veil had been lifted off of me.” Since that time, he has continued walking proudly upon the pavement, most recently taking over in June of 2018 as Afropunk’s chief content officer.
“Afropunk is a brand that I’ve been a big fan of because it creates safe spaces for people in the African diaspora around the world to be themselves outside the margins of society,” Wilbekin says. “They are super political and highly intelligent and it’s an important space in the world culturally.” His focus is increasing the stories and intersections that create Afropunk and “build out more digital, video, and branded content to expand on social platforms.” Wilbekin’s career has been “going into places and building them or rebranding them,” and he hopes to bring that wisdom and expertise to Afropunk.
For Wilbekin, his biggest accomplishment over the past year has been the creation of visibility and awareness of black queer community through Native Son. He is most proud of his capsule collection of Native Son apparel in conjunction with Bloomingdale's for Pride month. “I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that I would be associated with a brand in Bloomingdale's! It put us on the radar of a much larger audience in the U.S., and the collection sold out in two weeks, which even floored them. It was huge.” Wilbekin also notes that going back into full-time work with Afropunk while also running Native Son hasn’t been easy, though it was necessary.
Wilbekin’s focus going into 2019 is self-care. Making sure that through all of his amazing work he is also taking time out to preserve himself. He left with a message to his younger self that “It was okay for you to come out earlier. To have known that it was okay to be gay and the world wouldn’t end.”
Because of Wilbekin, I am. And so will be a new generation of black queer men who can finally live in the light.