Staff members of the Ruth Ellis Center had a “wild card” idea two years ago. Was it possible that Wanda Sykes, the irreverent comedian who publicly “came out” in 2008, could make time for the center during her tour stop in Detroit?
“We just said, ‘We’ll send a letter and see what happens,’ ” says Laura Hughes, executive director of Ruth Ellis, the only center of its kind in the Midwest serving the needs of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) youth who have been thrown out of their homes because of their sexuality.
Not only did Sykes quietly visit the center, Hughes says, she became an ally in its cause. The center’s namesake, Ruth Ellis, was a Detroit resident who lived openly as a lesbian and served as a gay-rights activist throughout the 20th century. Last year alone, Ruth Ellis received 4,309 youth at its Highland Park drop-in center. Statistics show that up to 40 percent of homeless teens in the United States are LGBTQ, largely because this population still suffers from discrimination within their own families. Sykes says she never went through that — but probably only because she didn’t go public until she was in her 40s. Now wildly successful as a comedian and actress, Sykes is married to her wife, Alex, following her marriage to a man that ended in divorce. The couple are raising young twins, and Sykes is in the middle of her 2012 stand-up tour. She’s blessed, she says, to live the life she wants to live, saying, “I can’t even imagine going through what these kids (at Ruth Ellis) have gone through.”
Although her status as an African-American gay celebrity has pulled Sykes in many directions for many causes, she will return to Detroit on Sept. 20 to host the Ruth Ellis Center’s annual fundraising event at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). From her home in Los Angeles, where she resorted to sitting in the car because of the din in her house from dogs and children, Sykes spoke to Hour Detroit about her own family struggles and why the center remains close to her heart.
Why did you want to visit the Ruth Ellis Center when you came to Detroit two years ago?
First, I wasn’t even aware of the center when they contacted me. When I found out about these kids, that really hit me hard. Because it was, like, here we are [the gay community], trying to create our families, to have a right to marry, and there are still kids who are getting kicked out of their families for being gay or lesbian or transgender.
Were you surprised by the number of homeless LGBT youth in this country?
Definitely. I think a lot of people know there are homeless teens, but I think they think they’re just troubled kids who ran away from home. They don’t know these kids were kicked out, abused.
What was your own experience like growing up at home?
I had such an easier time of it. I didn’t experience any of what these kids are going through. One, although I knew at an early age [that I was gay], I just lived my life the way I was supposed to live my life. And part of me knew that [being gay] just wasn’t acceptable to my family. When I was in my 40s and came out to my parents, that was hard. I think if I were still living at home, they would have thrown me out. I don’t think I would have been welcome. It took a while, and we’re still working on it. My wife and I, although we visit my parents, we still haven’t spent a night under their roof. But I think it’s getting better.
You got into comedy in your late 20s and seemed to hit your stride later in life with coming out and marrying your wife. What’s the journey been like?
It feels at the pace that’s right for me. It feels very organic. It doesn’t feel like it’s been orchestrated in any way. I never felt like I needed to make a big statement. It wasn’t until the whole political process in 2008, gay marriage and all, that I finally came out. But by then, it wasn’t just about me saying that I am a lesbian. It’s not about me. And [coming out] has to be at your comfort level. I think that’s what’s helped the most with my relationship with my parents. The more comfortable I became with myself and the more confident, there wasn’t anything for them to try and pick out or break down. Because they saw, ‘This is what she is. We either get on board, or we miss out on a relationship with our daughter.’
How are you balancing your desire for privacy and the expectations that come with being a gay African-American celebrity?
It’s hard. It really is! When I’m by myself, my fans know that it’s pretty much anything goes. But when I’m with my family, my fans are respectful.
You’ve stated many times that you’re uncomfortable categorizing groups or individuals. What’s your take on this need to always put a label on something?
I don’t know what it is. Especially being a comedian, you just want people to say, ‘Hey, you’re funny!’ But when they go, ‘Hey, you’re really a funny woman,’ I go, ‘OK, so you’re saying I’m less than the funny guys?’ It’s belittling when you put people in groups like that. And it’s just not who I am. When you look at my friends, they’re so diverse. And my audience is so diverse. So when you address me as a funny woman or a funny black person, you’re only getting a little slice of who I am.
What would you tell anyone who is still trying to find their place in the world?
Don’t stress. Find the thing that you love doing — the thing that you’re most passionate about. I’m happy because I’m doing the thing that I love to do most, and that’s making people laugh. Anything else that comes along — it’s a blessing.