Emil Wilbekin is not only a pop-culture expert, he’s also become a pop-culture icon himself. He is the chief content officer of Afropunk.com and the founder of World of Wilbekin, #WoW, and Native Son, a movement that he created to inspire and empower Black gay men. He’s also a world-class journalist, which includes being a founding editor of Vibe Magazine, leading the publication as editor-in-chief—and winning the 2002 National Magazine Award for General Excellence. He also served as GIANT Magazine’s editor-in-chief, managing editor of Essence.com and editor-at-large at Essence Magazine.
In short, this native son of Cleveland, Ohio, is a renaissance man who has been doing it for the culture since Day One.
More than a businessman, he is a visionary who inspires Black people all over the world with his commitment to elevating our stories. This passion also fuels his activism. Prior to our meeting at Afropunk’s offices in Brooklyn, Wilbekin was finalizing details for a multi-coalition partnership with the Human Rights Campaign and TheBody to address the catastrophic impact of HIV within the Black gay community.
Emil Wilbekin: My big thing with this partnership between the Human Rights Campaign, TheBody.com, and Native Son is figuring out why so many Black gay men are HIV positive in the United States. Why are the numbers so high, and why are the cases so young? As a community, we need to rally around this, because it affects everyone. We’ve kind of turned a blind eye to molestation, drug use, lack of self-worth, depression, bullying, and other things that are happening in our community, but not paying attention to this means that we don’t care about Black gay men, Black trans people, or Black queer people—and that has to stop. That’s the direction I’m leaning in from an activism point of view, because the numbers mean we are in a pandemic. If this was any other race or culture, it would dominate The New York Times’ cover page. We have to do something.
Juan Michael Porter II: Case in point, the coronavirus. If feels like you are constantly busy. Can we talk about what brings you joy?
EW: My biggest joy is receiving notes and DMs from around the world, specifically from Black gay men who never imagined a world where they could see a reflection of themselves or the multiple possibilities of who they could be; images of Black gay executives who are successful, sexy writers like Ben Corey Jones, or someone who is intellectually astute like Darnell Moore. Seeing yourself and every diverse possibility of what it means to be a Black gay man brings me joy.
JMPII: I love that it’s not just the “Black equals thug” thing. I mean, I love thug, but it’s not everything.
EW: Historically, especially when I was coming up, editing Vibe and even working at Essence, being Black and gay meant either a Homo DL, sexualized, muscular, savage man or being very effeminate, femme-presenting, but not in an empowering way. Now you can see Billy Porter storm the red carpet in a ball gown or an Egyptian number and be who he wants to project that day without being marginalized.
JMPII: It’s interesting that even though the internet has opened up the conversation around what’s possible, we still have issues of people calling [R&B singer] Tank’s statements about sexual exploration “gay,” as if being gay were a bad thing.
EW: Listen, that is at the core of my work. We have a lot of hard work to do within the Black community, from a diaspora perspective, of shifting our ideas of gender identity while being empathetic and understanding. I saw this great post on Instagram the other day, where someone was calling out the community because, “We’re already marginalized, and if you don’t accept Black, queer, trans, and the whole alphabet of queer people, you’re doing colonization work.” It’s marginalizing the marginalized. And how can we as a Black community elevate and liberate ourselves if we’re judging segments of our culture?
JMPII: That’s why I love the images you put up. They remind me that we can all be beautiful no matter how we self-represent.
EW: I’m really conscious about being inclusive, because I don’t want to marginalize anyone in our community.
JMPII: Can you speak about how Native Son and #WoW came to be?
EW: I was in India, and I had this epiphany about creating a platform for an organization for Black gay men that was empowering and inspiring. When I went to pitch it to different people, everyone said, “Why would you do Black gay men? Why not do ‘just gay men’? Why not do the queer community as well?”
JMPII: So why?
EW: Because I’m a Black gay man and have very specific concerns. This is important for me to say: I was impressed by the trans community. I was impressed by seeing Janet Mock and Laverne Cox out there speaking their truth, owning it, telling their story, advocating for other trans women of color, and galvanizing this community, and then being on the red carpet and looking gorgeous. I was like, white gay people do this; lesbians do this; trans women and trans men are doing this. Black gay men; what are we doing, and what are we doing for ourselves? The impetus of Native Son was that idea of when you walk down the street and see another Black gay man, you either throw them shade or ignore them and don’t speak. I wanted to create a space where we would come together and be forced to look each other in the eye, say hello, speak to each other, and serve as a mirror to each other.
JMPII: I don’t know you, but I love you.
EW: And I love the possibility of you in me.
JMPII: You’ve spoken about how difficult it was to open up about your status.
EW: Now, I don’t even think about it. I kind of overshare my HIV status. I did a panel last week with a luxury brand about queer communities, and in my introduction, I was like, “I’m HIV positive.” I didn’t need to; I didn’t think about it; it’s just who I am. I think what I’ve learned about coming out about my status publicly—five years ago, at the first Native Son Awards—was how empowering it was to people. It liberated so many Black gay men. Look at the CDC numbers; half of our population is [likely to become] HIV positive. So I was like, “Half of the room is positive, or knows someone who is.”
Prior to that, I was dating someone who had HIV/AIDS trauma in his history but couldn’t articulate what his issue was. When we broke up, I told him, “I want to thank you for this relationship, because within the year, I’m coming out about my status because of the shame, fear, and worry that this relationship made me feel about myself.” And it was the most liberating thing I could have done. After coming out to that room of 50 Black gay intergenerational men, several people came up and whispered to me that they were shocked, because they knew me, and I looked healthy, and blah, blah, blah. It’s like, well, that’s how you look when you’re positive and you take care of yourself. And then other people whispered that they were positive too and I made them feel OK. The next morning, I woke up, and it was like this huge boulder had been lifted off my chest. I want other people to feel that, especially if 50% of our population is HIV positive. We should not live feeling broken, shameful, or unworthy.
JMPII: Where does that shame come from? People with emphysema or cirrhosis don’t face this kind of stigma.
EW: Well, you contract HIV through sexual activity or drug use, right? So it’s not socially acceptable in mainstream society, and as Black people, we’re already put upon. We have to deal with social injustice, marginalization, then homophobia and transphobia, and on top of it, I’m HIV positive too? It’s a lot to carry, depending on your support system. I mean, it took me 15 years to tell my mother. I told her right after I announced it publicly, and she was like, “Why didn’t you tell me before?” and I was like, “It was the shame.”
JMPII: How did she react?
EW: I was bawling. She was very stoic. She was also very ill at that point, and she just shook her head. After she processed it, she said, “You know, I always was afraid that you would get that. But I’m glad it didn’t kill you.” I was very methodical about telling her about when I found out, my medication, being undetectable, and what that meant. Then she said, “It sounds like you’re taking care of yourself. I need to take care of myself.”
JMPII: I think it confuses a lot of people that living with HIV is not a death sentence.
EW: Well, not now. But I am of the age where a whole generation—of not just Black gay men, but gay men, artists, visionaries, dreamers, and doers—disappeared. I’m grateful to science and medicine that we can live happy, healthy lives. But it’s work, too. Because there are the side effects of meds, and you do have to get proper sleep, eat healthily, and work out. It’s not just “Take the pill; whatever.” You have to live as a normal human being.
JMPII: You’ve spoken about growing up in a devout Lutheran household, to finding your place at First Corinthian Baptist Church, which is incredibly diverse and pro-Black at the same time.
EW: Yes. I found my spiritual center there in a way that I’d never felt before. There are other gay, lesbian, and trans people with their kids in church, and working class and middle class people from Harlem and people who are young and vibrant and creative. Pastor Michael Walrond is very visionary and cool and doing his own work around queer acceptance.
JMPII: Tell me about “The Journey.”
EW: “The Journey” is Pastor Mike’s ministry that brings in thought leaders, celebrities, activists, authors, or politicians to talk about their spiritual and professional journeys. I was helping book talent and build its social media. One Sunday, DeRay McKesson had to reschedule, and Pastor Mike said, “I want you to do it.” And I was like, “I’m here to serve, because you asked me to serve, and that’s my Christian duty.” And he’s like, “I know, but part of your duty is to do this conversation with me.” And I was just like, “Noooooo. …” I know I am considered a celebrity, but I didn’t want to be considered a celebrity at church. But God had a bigger vision.
Before I went out, the deacons pulled me into Pastor Mike’s office and prayed over me. It was powerful, because they were like, “You’re already covered,” but they put oil on me and they prayed that God would speak through me. So Pastor Mike and I go out, sit, and we talk. This is like an 11-minute talk; it’s very short. It’s supposed to be about faith and believing in yourself, but I talked about being HIV positive. It was tremendous to be in a Baptist church in Harlem and to sit on what is considered the altar with the pastor and have this conversation—it’s kind of blurry to me, but I will tell you that the spirit let loose. Pastor Mike typically preaches after the talk and pulls points from the conversation as a basis for his sermon. He couldn’t preach that day; they just let the choir go on, and people were falling out and coming up to pray on the altar, and he was sitting there weeping. At one point, I was like, “This is incredible to have the opportunity to use my story to empower other people.” That’s the work for me. I think people are shaken, because it is our reality. It is something that we live with and try to ignore. But when we see it, [it’s like,] “No. This is in our house.”
JMPII: This is us, and we’re still beautiful.
EW: Yeah. And it was. Having Black gay men in the church come up to me afterwards was humbling, but what was really powerful was having all these older women come up to me to thank me for my testimony because they knew someone who had died of AIDS or who was HIV positive. A lot of them were like, “Oh no, I’ve overcome cancer. I have overcome other health disparities in my life.” A lot of people have told me, “You can’t see it, so you never really needed to come out about your status.” But I say, “You cannot lead Black gay men and create an organization and platform that is about authenticity and living your truth if you’re not living your truth.”
JMPII: Tell me about Afropunk.
EW: I went into Afropunk wanting to go where Black culture is the center, with Black liberation politics breaking down the box that we’ve been placed in as Black people. It’s been an interesting alignment with the other work that I’ve done. There’s still a lot of work to do around acceptance. Black people can be alternative and punk and still be homophobic and misogynists and still not realize that disabled people should be labeled properly or that body positivity is fine and real.
JMPII: How do you deal with that divisiveness?
EW: I think our core tenants are a North Star: no homophobia; no misogyny; no sexism; no ableism; no ageism; no fatphobia; no transphobia. Those are our values. We’ve been clapping back on our social media channels this year, because we’d heard that there was a lot of homophobia and transphobia within the comments. So as fate would have it, my social media manager went on vacation, and I ended up being the monitor on Instagram and Facebook.
We had a whole conversation with these cisgender Black straight men questioning a photograph of two straight Black men embracing to challenge toxic masculinity. Let me tell you something, toxic masculinity showed up in that feed. After we flat-out pointed to our tenets and values, the community rose, took over, fought the battle for us, did the good work, and challenged them. It was cool, because after three hours of watching this—there were over 700 comments, which is crazy—someone commented, “Kudos to you, Afropunk, for not taking the post down or blocking the individuals, but letting it air out in a healthy way.” That, to me, is what community is about. It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t always look pretty, and it’s messy, but you gotta do it to get to a better place.
JMPII: It may not feel good, but this is how a loving community looks.
EW: Exactly. This is what a loving community looks like. And that’s what empathy and compassion look like, even though it seems ugly. It’s calling people out on their shit and being able to have a dialogue.
Emil Wilbekin continues to build dialogue within the community, regardless of where you fit into the Diaspora. For more information, follow his byline at Afropunk, his Instagram account, or Native Son.