Black gay men were front and center at the inaugural Native Son Awards, an intimate ceremony held on Wednesday at the Cadillac House in New York City.
The awards dinner sought to provide a space for an often marginalized group, while also honoring the achievements of CNN anchor Don Lemon, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson and Tony-winning director and playwright George C. Wolfe.
“We are here to celebrate us,” said veteran journalist and LGBT activist Emil Wilbekin, who founded the Native Son Awards.
“You all are the brain trust that will fuel what Native Son can be as we move forward. 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. It is a new day.”
The awards ceremony is named after the 1955 novel Notes of a Native Son, written by famed writer and poet James Baldwin, who was also an openly gay black man.
“He was out at a time when a lot of people were not openly gay. He was so vocal about civil rights and what was going on in the world,” Wilbekin told theGrio.com.
“What was going on in the black community. What was going on in the church. He was also self-critical — and I’m always moved by how poignant it is today.”
Though the visibility of black gay men has improved over the last decade, including leading roles in television and film like “Empire” and Moonlight, Wilbekin says there’s still more to be done to ensure that they are not only seen but fully embraced both within and outside the LGBT community.
In addition to the work they do in their respective professions, this year’s honorees were chosen specifically because of their visibility and the impact they’ve had on not only men like them but the world.
Lemon, who came out publicly in 2011, is not only a prominent host on one of the biggest cable news networks on television, but his name is in the title of the show — a detail Wilbekin made sure to emphasize before presenting him with his award.
During his acceptance speech, Lemon stressed the importance of fellowship among gay men of color and challenged the room to be out in “every single facet” of their lives.
“To be a black gay man in 2016 and beyond, you should be out and not have to think about being out,” he said to a round of applause. “No duality. We should all be out. We should all be proud.”
Wolfe, who won a Tony in 1993 and 1996, reflected on the power of words to move people and asked attendees to continue to be hopeful even in the midst of fear amid heightened police violence and a post-Donald Trump election.
“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 said.
“We have all of the muscles; we’re not lacking one muscle at all. 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 and it’s important to remember this now more than ever.”
Mckesson, who is the most visible and prominent leader of the BLM movement, said he believed that Native Son was a vessel for creating a more just world.
“Many of you tell our truth every day by just existing,” he said.
“There are more of us that believe in a just world than those who do not. The next President will be a real test of can we organize and 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.”
Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Homepage and Opinion Editor at theGrio. Keep up with him on Twitter @MrGerrenalist.