News (USA)

First ever Native Son Awards celebrate Don Lemon and other black gay men

Last week’s Native Son Awards honored the contributions of black gay men including CNN host Don Lemon, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, and Tony award-winning director and playwright George C. Wolfe.

Journalist and LGBTQ activist Emil Wilbekin told ESSENCE he created the event — named after James Baldwin’s 1955 novel Notes of a Native Son — to honor and encourage the increased visibility and impact of black gay men in society.

“This year was the perfect year to launch the Native Son Awards because there are more black gay men who are visible in the world who need to be recognized and celebrated,” he explained. “And with the election, it’s even more important to make sure that black men, no matter what their sexual identity, are seen and heard.”

He noted the successes of the film “Moonlight,” the television show “Empire,”  the Black Lives Matter movement, and Don Lemon’s reporting on police brutality.

And while the inaugural ceremony gave awards to just a few, it also served to honor and recognize the community as a whole.

“We are here to celebrate us,” Wilbekin said at Wednesday night’s event at New York City’s Cadillac House. “We have to be comfortable with who we are. We have to be comfortable to show up for ourselves and we have to be comfortable in our skin. And we have to be comfortable seeing each other and saying hello to each other. So tonight we’re going to change the narrative.”

Baldwin provides a clear inspiration for that narrative.

“He was out at a time when a lot of people were not openly gay,” Wilbekin told “He was so vocal about civil rights and what was going on in the world.”

Lemon, who came out in 2011, encouraged fellow black gay men to follow Baldwin’s example.

“To be a black gay man in 2016 and beyond, you should be out and not have to think about being out,” he said. “No duality. We should all be out. We should all be proud.”

And while the ominous uncertainty of Donald Trump’s presidency looms, Tony award-winner Wolf said that black gay men have “all of the muscles” they need to persevere in the face of whatever is to come.

“We’re entering in an incredibly brutal period of history but we’re black and we’re gay. We’ve faced severe rejection from people who we love, from our families, so we’ve gone through some very hard stuff,” he told the crowd. “Whatever you do – do it with force and a conviction that exists inside of you because you are a black gay man and you have endured.”

Mckesson, a prominent leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, said he’s hopeful about what they can accomplish.

“Many of you tell our truth every day by just existing,” he said. “I’m hopeful by the people here tonight, being ready to do the work that it would take to bring in the world that we know that we need and deserve.”

Wilbekin told ESSENCE he hopes that truth-telling will continue into the new year.

“In my mind, Native Son has the ability to shift the cultural conversation in the black community about black gay men,” he said. “The National Urban League Conference hosted a Native Son panel this summer and it was the first time there had been an LGBT conversation at this historic civil rights convening. The more visibility we have, the more dialogue we can have. I hope that Native Son will be able to bring more of these conversations to life in the new year. This is just the beginning.”

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