Building the Road to Black Queer Liberation at the Native Son Awards
Once again, media guru Emil Wilbekin pulled out all the stops to elevate Black queer and gay men with this year’s Native Son Awards (the ceremony aired via livestream late last month). For the fifth edition of the award ceremony—which honors mavericks, innovators, leaders, and visionaries within the community—Wilbekin focused on movers and shakers who have not only elevated their community, but whose contributions have and continue to transform the world.
Natives Son’s 2021 awardees included Alphonso David—president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Darren Walker—president of the Ford Foundation, Jonathan Capehart—Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and host of The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart on MSNBC, Lil Nas X—Grammy Award–winning artist, Steven Canals—co-creator, writer, and co-executive producer of Pose, and William H. Carson, M.D.—chairman of Otsuka Pharmaceutical.
Wilbekin created the Native Son Now platform five years ago as a safe space for Black queer and gay men to celebrate, love, and nurture each other while affirming their right to live openly in a world that often fears and judges them. Recognizing that asking others to live openly demanded that he lead the way by revealing his own truth, Wilbekin used the first award ceremony in 2016 to disclose that he was living with HIV.
Since then, other stalwarts within the community have followed his example, most recently Billy Porter, a Native Son 2020 awardee, who in accepting his award last November, thanked Wilbekin for having been there for him when others tried to punish his refusal to live in the closet.
Wilbekin’s constant advocacy and Porter’s recent disclosure stand as reminders that despite the current renaissance of gay representation in entertainment, it has not always been safe for Black queer and gay men to be themselves.
That is what made this year’s Native Son Awards ceremony so thrilling to observe—that despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to disproportionately affect Black, Brown, and queer communities, a group of same-gender-loving men and their allies could come together to present an online celebration that roared, “We’re here, we’re fabulous, and nothing can keep us down.”
That much-needed injection of Black joy opened the award ceremony with a thrilling dance performance about finding liberation within oneself despite isolation, from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater star, Yannick Lebrun.
“Why Do We Have to Be Super-Powered?”
Wilbekin referenced the performance’s theme of persevering through isolation while citing Native Son’s spiritual forefather, James Baldwin, with a quote that defines the movement: “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” This quote is from Notes of a Native Son, a book of James Baldwin’s letters.
As the night progressed, it became clear that even the need for social distancing would not deter Wilbekin from pulling together a powerful list of allies to create that space, including the evening’s leading sponsors, Procter & Gamble and Morgan Stanley Global Sports and Entertainment; the co-chairs of the event, New York City mayoral candidate Ray McGuire and filmmaker Crystal McCrary McGuire; and a lineup of star presenters: Lena Waithe, Dyllon Burnside, Don Lemon, and Jason Rodriguez.
Embedded within the online joy and glamor was a critique of Wilbekin’s focus on excellence and superlatives. Rather than shy away, he addressed the elephant in the room: “Why do we have to be super-powered? Why can’t we just be us?” His answer put all doubts or fear of respectability politics to rest:
“We historically have something inside of us that pushes back against the construct of society that makes us do better, that makes us better. And I believe that a lot of our histories, and a lot of our stories and our narratives have been erased, have been ignored. To me, and so, as I think about the honorees tonight, and everything that they’ve done in our lives, they’ve shown up and given 100%, and they are as good or better than any of their counterparts. So when I think of Native Son, something that’s still weighing on me as I prepare for these awards was really about how do we center ourselves as Black and queer men? And then, in that center—How do we center ourselves to create a community?”
Native Son’s answer is celebrating Black and queer as sources of pride for the entire community, because we all need possibility models.
While accepting his award, Darren Walker echoed that sentiment. “Imagine had this organization existed 30 to 40 years ago when I was much younger and beginning my career? To have walked into a room of extraordinary, remarkable, brilliant Black queer men, and to be enveloped, to be embraced, to be validated by all of your excellence. So many of us today live with the scars, with the trauma, with the history of growing up different. And I’m just thankful that the next generation will not have to endure as so many of us did.”
In his acceptance speech, Lil Nas X revealed, “When I came out two years ago, it was one of the scariest moments of my life. I was afraid because I knew the world was watching, and all I ever saw for boys like me was judgment and ridicule. But it was because the world was watching that I knew I had to stand in my truth.”
He continued, speaking for the youth who are struggling to find acceptance—and about his decision to live openly and proudly and to do his part to open doors for other queer artists.
“Some people say I am pushing an agenda, and I am. It’s called liberation,” he said.
Two days later, Lil Nas X delivered a scorching musical performance on Saturday Night Live that revealed his agenda with full force—normalizing Black queer lust, love, and existence with a demand for the same recognition granted the Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses, Jonas Brothers, or Lil Migo without question.
Giving the Community All of the Flowers It Deserves
In her passionate tribute to HRC president and LGBTQ civil rights leader Alphonso David, Jodie Patterson, chair of HRC, revealed that the representation that David and Native Son fight for is valuable at every level because it ensures that the upcoming generation—such as her son—never question their right to exist.
Patterson said that this realization came to her after her then-3-year-old child—who was assigned female sex at birth—told her, “Mama I’m not a girl, I’m a boy.” Patterson said that hearing those words awakened the need to re-educate herself in order to defend her child from people who might try to hurt him for being different, and that leaning on HRC and David’s example helped fortify that resolve.
From Darren Walker, who is 61, to Lil Nas X, who is 22, to Jodie Patterson, the mother of a queer child, the Native Son Awards gives voice to the burning need for Emil Wilbekin’s quest for Black queer celebration. Even as he continues to give the community all of the flowers that it deserves, one hopes that this need for recognition will continue to transcend to even larger platforms in the future. I hear that NBC needs a replacement for the racist Golden Globe Awards—with its focus on culture and joy, the Native Son Awards would make a perfect fit.