For renowned journalist Emil Wilbekin, coming out was a puzzle-like journey characterized by beautiful junctures of self-discovery and heartbreaking moments of rejection. His story begins in a Black, middle-class neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Wilbekin household was comprised of a brother six years Emil’s senior, a mother who was an accomplished scholar and judge, and an equally accomplished Caribbean father hailing from St. Croix.
“We went to church every Sunday. My parents were really active in the church,” Wilbekin recalled during his recent sit-down with Madame Noire’s In This Room. “I think what made the acceptance of my sexuality challenging was growing up in the Midwest in Cincinnati, which is a very conservative town, to very religious parents, my father being West Indian, my mother being from Des Moines, Iowa – so very strict values.”
In addition to religion, there were social pressures. The Wilbekins were a popular family with very active social lives. Naturally, heteronormative expectations were placed upon their sons.
“My parents were very middle class, so I was supposed to get married, have two kids, Jack & Jill – all that good stuff,” the former Vibe editor-in-chief explained. “It was stressing me out – because my parents are very social – what other people would think about my sexual identity.”
As with many youths who are unsure about their sexuality, it took leaving the nest for college before those crystal clear moments of self-realization began to take place.
“I kind of knew something was different, but I wasn’t quite sure. I knew a lot of my friends from the neighborhood and at school were really into girls,” said the culture curator. “And I was like ‘Yeah, they’re cool. I want to hang out with them,’ but I wasn’t like I want to date them.”
He continued: “It wasn’t until college that I kind of really figured out like ‘Oh okay, I’m definitely different and I’m probably gay, but I’m really struggling to accept that within myself.'”
Wilbekin, 52, admits that coming out wasn’t instantaneous. Instead, it was sort of a drawn-out process that would later prove to be painful for those who witnessed his evolution up close.
“I wasn’t really out. A lot of my girlfriends I hung out with were like ‘He’s gay.’ There were rumors in college that I was gay, which was kind of tumultuous for me because I was trying to figure it out and then to have people calling you out,” Emil reflected.
A summer program that led him to London is what helped the activist to connect with his true self. His moment came while watching British film, Looking for Langston. According to Emil, it was the first time he was able to witness gay Black love in a positive way — free from stereotypes.
“That was my coming out moment and I was in another country and so it was easier for me to come out to myself,” he reflected. “It was a great place for me to come to terms that I’m different, that I’m attracted to men, and that’s okay. Also, because it was a major metropolitan city, I saw other gay couples. I went to clubs and gay clubs and I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ I didn’t have that at Hampton and I definitely didn’t have it in Cincinnati.”
It wasn’t until after he returned home and began attending Columbia University that he actually began coming out to friends.
“Most of my friends were like ‘Uh, thank God you finally realized it. We were praying for you We’ve been hoping that you would just accept it,'” he reflected. “I didn’t realize it was paining my friends to see me going through the struggle of coming out and being my full self.”
Even then, Wilbekin admits that while living his “best life” in Harlem, he wasn’t completely out. He still had to tell his family.
“It was a breath of fresh air except I had to tell my family,” he recalled. “So there were parts of me that were out and parts of me still in the closet.”
He first revealed his sexuality to his older brother, Erik, who would prove to play an instrumental role in keeping the Wilbekins together during the emotionally trying transition. Though Erik — whose law studies led him to work with gay men— expressed concerns about Emil’s health, he vowed to stay by his baby brother’s side. One year later, Emil told his parents.
“It was one of the most horrific moments of my life,” he admitted. “It took years of work. We didn’t speak for a period of time. I was in therapy a lot.”
Similar to Erik, Emil would later learn that his parents were primarily worried about his health and wellbeing.
“Later my mother would tell me that their biggest fear was that I would be hurt or beaten up because of my sexuality and identity, that I would get HIV or AIDS, or that I would be fired from my job because they’re older so they came up at a different time,” he recalled.
Emil would go on to launch Native Son, a networking group for professional Black gay men. On the night of the initiative’s official launch, he revealed another truth about himself: He is HIV positive.
“About a week and a half before the event I had a panic attack because I realized here I was about to lead this movement,” he shared. “It was the breakout of the movement of inspiration and empowerment for gay Black men but I wasn’t authentically living my truth,” he shared. “I had not shared with the world that I was HIV positive in a world where Black gay men have the highest rates of infection.”
Having lived in secret with the virus for 15 years, Emil admits that revealing his status caused him to feel as if a large weight had been lifted off of his shoulders.
“The next day, I woke up and felt like a boulder had been lifted off of my chest. It was as if everything was now in technicolor. When I walked down the street, I could feel my feet hitting the pavement. I just felt super liberated. and free.”
His revelation served as an inspiration for other men living with the virus who carry the burden of stigma and shame attached to being positive.
“I was like, I’m just going to go ahead and be public about it, liberate my community and free myself,” Wilbekin recalled.
Watch Emil’s full interview and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.