Native Son Founder Emil Wilbekin on Empowering Black Gay Men

Portrait Credit: Wardell Malloy

Emil Wilbekin is a renowned journalist and humanitarian best known for his tenure at Vibe magazine, where he served as Editor-in-Chief. His flair for style, music, and pop culture won him the hearts and minds of LGBTQ+ people the world over.

Wilbekin’s journey began with writing and editing stories for People Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, and Metropolitan Home. He has served as Marc Ecko Enterprises’ Vice President of Brand Development. He was the Style Guru at Complex before moving on to become Editor-in-Chief of GIANT Magazine and the Managing Editor of Essence.com.

In 2016, he started Native Son after he realized that Black gay men lacked unity around fellowship, networking, and celebrating one another. He named the organization in honor of James Baldwin’s book Notes of Native Son. Its mission, according to its website, is to “harness the collective power of Black gay/queer men to ensure that our voices, visibility, and lived experiences are elevated in all of the communities in which we exist.”

Wilbekin ruminates on his three muses for Native Son, the takeaway from this endeavor, and what the future holds.

Michael Arceneaux, Emil Wilbekn, and George Faison at the 2019 Native Son Awards Credit: Ricky Day 

PrideIndex (PI): Hello, so I am talking with Emil Wilbekin this afternoon. How are you today, Sir?

Emil Wilbekin (EW): I’m great. How are you doing?

PI: I’m doing good. It’s been a while since we’ve actually spoken. We exchanged several emails in 2011 regarding your being selected for an Esteem Award. Do you still have that award?

EW: I do. I keep all of the awards that I received because I’m so particularly honored when I am recognized by my own community and people. It means a lot to me. So, thank you for seeing me so early on in the Native Son process and recognizing the work.

PI: Since we last recognized you, you were with VIBE Magazine, and since moved on to start Native Son. Tell me a bit more about Native Son? Why did you start it? And what was your muse?

EW: Native Son is a movement, community, and platform created to inspire and empower Black, gay and queer men. It was started six years ago. And the straightforward idea was to create safer spaces for Black gay, and queer men to come together and to talk about the issues that were relative to them in their lives, also to serve as a mirror to each other so that we could come together in spaces that were in the light. So, it’s not a bar, app, or darkroom, but a well-lit place where we could see and be reflections of each other. And lastly, it’s to build community and create agency within the community to uplift and amplify the voices and visibility of black gay and queer men in the world. In my view, there are three muses for starting Native Son. The first would be James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” Mr. Baldwin’s first book of essays and criticisms mostly around popular culture, colorism, racism, masculinity, identity, and the black church. The second muse was my experience working at Essence magazine and seeing how black women lifted other black women up and supported each other. And then the third muse would be the Black trans community and seeing how Black trans women were standing up and advocating for themselves and telling their truth and being authentic in who they are and who their community is. So, those three muses helped really inspire what has become Native Son.

PI: I recall seeing an award ceremony for Native Son at one time. I didn’t see one advertised this past year. Was that due to COVID?

EW: Actually, we did host the Native Son Awards last year. It is one of the annual flagship programs; we did not do it in 2018. We did it during COVID, which we hosted virtually in 2020 and 2021. And we’re in the process of planning 2022 now for Pride month in June.

PI: When and where will this event take place? Have you selected the honorees?

EW: We’re in the process of planning everything now. The event will be held during Pride Week in New York, the last week in June. We’re finalizing the honoree list, inputting all the plans and finalizing locations, and so forth.

PI: I’ve visited your website and recall seeing Native Son mentions on Instagram. I’m curious if you have plans to do television or branch out into other mediums? 

EW: Yes. The existing website is a holding page. We put some content up, but it’s more information and background. Native Son was started on Instagram, so we consider ourselves, no pun intended, native to social media. And right now, there are 47,000 followers on our Instagram page. We have super robust traffic, engagement, and impressions. We are currently working on a plan to expand our media footprint to include a website, web series, TV, film, books, and podcasts. I’m working on the business plan with a product team to develop what that will look like, and hopefully, that will launch this year.

PI: How do you decide who to cover, and what’s important?

EW: When we talk about Native Son, we’re talking about Black gay and queer men who are making a difference in their community, lives, professions, and the world. We look through that lens. We have many different groups. We have young people, gender non-binary folks who are part of the community, and people from all over the country and worldwide who have different Black, gay, and queer experiences. We also focus through the media lens. We look at celebrities, influencers, activists, thought leaders, and people shifting the voices and visibility of Black gay and queer men. That’s kind of the big lens that we look through.

PI: Your website mentions the James Baldwin Society. Which, of course, makes sense. The donation levels seem to be out of reach for ordinary folk. What if I wanted to be involved but didn’t have $10 grand to give up for the diamond status? What would you say to people like me?

EW: You could do the $1,500 status, roughly $200 a month. Those are fundraising levels. For the most part, everything we do is free and open to the public. We created this mechanism for people who want to donate, expressed interest in contributing, and really want to support the work. I think a lot of times in the black community in general, we shy away from fundraising and from supporting groups that serve the community. We need to instill in our communities, much like tithing at church. We actually need to support the work done because the work costs money. Much of the work with founding Native Son has been funded by myself personally, so this is just how to engage the community. We’re not asking that everyone give $10,000. Most people don’t have that. But if you have $10, you could give that. If you have $100, you could provide that. This is more so about engaging the community in supporting itself.

PI: Let’s talk about some of the barriers to entry or hindrances that you’ve encountered and what you have done to overcome them when starting this endeavor.

EW: So, barriers of entry. I don’t believe that there have been that many. Other people throughout history have started organizations, and there are a lot of local organizations. And there are a lot of legacy organizations that were created to support the Black, gay and queer experience and community. I came to Native Son with a perspective based on my media experience and background and my live event experience and background. I translated that into what I thought could be a community for Black gay and queer men, and clearly, it has resonated. We are at 47,000 followers on Instagram; it proves there’s a need, thirst and interest in Black and queer men being a part of this. The biggest joy is when I get notes from men who are Gen Zs, to men in their 70s that talk about not having a space to call their own and being grateful that Native Son exists and wishing that it existed when they were growing up. Because there haven’t been a lot of platforms that allowed them to see themselves. So, I don’t think there are barriers in terms of obstacles. I think it’s about creating something and putting it out there and growing, nurturing, building, and sticking with it.

Photo Credit: Ricky Day

PI: Often, we hear our sisters representing the “L” in the LGBTQ+ community say that we tend to do things to separate away from them, and we don’t like to include them in some of our endeavors. Do you think that’s a fair statement? Do you agree or disagree with that?

EW: I think historically, there has been friction, challenges, and separation between the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly as it pertains to the Black part of that community. I tell people that Native Son was created as an intervention for myself and my brothers. Our focus is on Black, gay, and queer men because we need that space and until we can hold our community together and have fellowship and heal ourselves, we can’t really be part of a broader conversation and community of healing. I’ve met with many Black lesbians and Black trans women and talked about them creating organizations and holding space for themselves. Within that, of course, allyship is important. Every intersection of the Black community is important. As Native Son grows and develops, we will partner and link arms with other Black LGBTQ communities to support each other. We will educate and inform the Black cisgender community about what it means to be gay and queer as African Americans and Black folks globally.

PI: What is the one thing you would like for everyone to take away from Native Son? 

EW: The most important take away from Native Son, to me, is there’s a legacy and a history of Black, gay and queer men who have been leaders in our liberation. They’re activists, thought leaders in politics, entertainment, literature, film, and television, working to move the culture forward. They were erased, ignored, or not seen or respected in many instances. I’m simply hoping that people realize who these people are from a historical perspective and that the current wave of Black and queer men is changing the world and fighting for our freedom. And just allowing everyone to live in the light and be recognized being heard and respected.

PI: If I’m a gentleman that wants to get into the Native Son’s space, what should I do?

EW: It’s really simple. You follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, sign-up for the newsletter, and participate in the community. There are no membership dues. This is a community organization. You can DM us on Instagram, or you can email us at info@nativeson.us and inquire about things that are coming up. There’ll be more live events now that we’re coming out of COVID. Still, everything we posted throughout the pandemic has been virtual and open to the public and available on YouTube, Facebook, Live, or Instagram.

What does the future hold for Native Son now? What does the future hold for Emil? 

EW: The future for Native Son is bright. I don’t consider Native Son built for right now. I think it is made for future generations of Black, gay and queer boys and men who want to know who they are. They want to know their history and be in a community with other Black gay and queer men. So, we will amplify our voices and visibility through the media side of the business. We will continue to support the community in terms of HIV and AIDS. We will also continue to support the community through empowerment, professional development and mentorship in terms of wellness, mental health, and physical fitness. And then lastly, amplify our voices and visibility advocating for ourselves and creating agency for ourselves.

What’s next for Emil Wilbekin? To continue to grow the Native Son platform and infrastructure, serve the community, and continue to do excellent media work that I’ve been blessed to do all these years and represent the Black and queer community at the highest level, the way Mr. Baldwin and Alvin Ailey, E. Lynn Harris, Marlon Riggs, and Joseph Beam and all these men have done before.

PI: Who’s going to play you in the movie version? 

EW: [Laughs] That comes up a lot. There are so many talented Black, gay, and queer actors. Wow, that’s such a great question. I don’t know. But I think there are many great actors in the theater and Hollywood who are yet to be discovered. I don’t know. I just hope that they do me justice. That’s all.

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