Black parents of LGBTQ+ kids are having a moment. First, there was the powerful speech Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union delivered at this year’s NAACP Awards last week, dedicated mostly to their daughter Zaya. Now, NBA legend Magic Johnson is expressing his love and admiration for his son, EJ.
It’s been 10 years since EJ came out as gay after a video of him holding hands with a man was shared on TMZ. The year after, he gained a lead role on Rich Kids of Beverly Hills and quickly garnered a following. In 2013, it wasn’t all that common to see gay Black men in a reality show setting.
Since then, he went on to have another show, EJNYC, which was one of the very first shows to spotlight an LBGTQ+ person of colour. At the time, EJ suggested that reality TV should be more than entertainment, drama and fighting.
“It should also be a way to teach people about what’s unique and special about your life,” he told Kelley L. Carter.
When EJ uses the words “unique” and “special”, it’s a wonder whether he was talking about his life, or just life in general. Because we know there are probably a few other choice words members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially the Black ones, might have to describe the journey to feeling a sense of belonging. Take Tevin Campbell, for instance, whose journey to coming out I wrote about here.
It’s part of the reason I’m so thrilled to see Black men (from the sports industry at that) paving the way, not only for LGBTQ+ kids, but also for their parents, when it comes to acceptance. A sense of belonging comes – or doesn’t – from one’s family and home first, before they get it from the outside world.
"I love EJ's career," Magic told PEOPLE. "I think that EJ is really taking charge of his career and making his own decisions, and he knows how and what he wants to get into."
Magic is referring to the success EJ has amassed since making his debut on reality TV. Despite some show cancellations, EJ has always bounced back, landing on his feet. The same year he appeared on Rich Kids of Beverly Hills for the first time, he joined E! News as a news personality and commentator. He began covering New York Fashion Week and became a mainstay on Fashion Police. He guest starred on Real Husbands of Hollywood, began moderating panels about gender and guest hosted on The Real. And in 2021, it was announced he would be the voice of Michael Collins in a reboot of The Proud Family, a cartoon beloved by the Black community and one of very few animated shows centred around a Black family.
Society has been a cruel and unreceptive place for LGBTQ+ people who look like EJ, and even for those who don’t. Earlier this week, when photos of Sam Smith’s latest photoshoot were published on Black blogs, the comment sections were full of homophobia, hate and bigotry. Even when the person is Black, it’s the same thing. This raunchy photo of the notoriously unbothered Lil Nas X garnered a similar response. So it's wonderful to see EJ taking up space in places that haven’t been welcoming to Black members of the LGBTQ+ community.
"He's always saying, 'You know what, Dad, I want to make sure everything that I do, that I enjoy it and that it sends the right message out there to my fans and the people who have always loved and supported me,'" Magic told the outlet.
And it could be that same level of joy and honesty that played a part in paving the way for other Black, LGBTQ+ reality stars to be their authentic selves on TV. Recently, MTV premiered a gay reality show, Real Friends of WeHo, which features two Black men. In addition, EJ may have served as the inspiration for people like Mikel Simmons – who, in the premiere season of Bravo’s Southern Hospitality, came out to his Christian father, which I wrote about here. EJ and Mikel have very similar backgrounds when it comes to religion. And though Mikel still considers himself a Christian, EJ left the church he grew up in shortly after coming out over the institution’s views on homosexuality.
One saying we’ve heard so often within and from the Black community, over the last few years especially, is the idea that we are not a monolith. And when you look at the range of lifestyles and identities presented by people like Zaya Wade, EJ Johnson and Mikel Simmons, and even those beyond them, you truly understand that. Yes, these are all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Some come from inherently religious families, some don’t. Some are transgender, some are not. In fact, EJ once spoke about considering transitioning after Caitlyn Jenner did, but decided not to. But all three of these individuals have been embraced by their families, and there is a direct correlation between that acceptance and their ability to go out into the world, bravely and boldly, knowing they have the backing of their families and a soft place to land in a society that has always been hard.
As much as Zaya, EJ and Mikel are paving the way for Black LGBTQ+ people to be their authentic selves in the spaces they take up, their families are also paving the way for people like Mikel’s dad, who may have had some discomfort in finally hearing and accepting his son’s sexuality, like Magic did.
Last April, EJ spoke to Variety about it, saying his parents were the last to know. He described his dad’s chilly reception to his coming out, but the warm reception that came when he had returned from New York.
“I had only been gone for two months,” EJ said. “He picked me up at my dorm and I was like, ‘Oh, whatever, hey.’ And he hugged me so hard — he was, like, squeezing all the air out of me. That’s when I knew, there’s nothing but love here.”
Magic and Dwyane say they’ve been forever changed and inspired by watching their kids wake up and be themselves every single day. By simply showing up and being loud about their love and acceptance for their children, they’re modelling what kids – LGBTQ+ or not – need the most. Love. And radical acceptance.