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Wanda Sykes Talks Commitment to Detroit’s Homeless Youth

By | 2012-09-13T09:00:00-04:00 September 13th, 2012|Entertainment|

Two and a half hours. That’s all it took for Wanda Sykes, who spent that much time mingling with and encouraging the youth at the Ruth Ellis Center during a Detroit tour stop, to attach herself to the cause of curbing homelessness among LGBT youth. Now Sykes’ dedication to the Highland Park homeless shelter is coming full circle on Sept. 20, when she returns to Detroit as host of Ruth Ellis Center’s annual fundraising event, Voices, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).
She’ll speak, of course – announcing the results of the End the Chill campaign, which looks to raise $20,000 by the night of the event – but that’s not all. Sykes will visit the kids for a second time. “It did more for me than I did being there for the kids,” she recalls of her quiet visit to Ruth Ellis in the summer of 2010. “Just listening to their stories, I was so impressed with these young people who are in these horrible situations; they were sitting there, smiling. I was just happy to meet them.” It was then she knew that “whatever I can do to help the center I will gladly do, because it is an incredibly important place.”
Ruth Ellis Center, the only mission-specific agency in the entire Midwest dedicated to LGBT homeless youth, provides residential and drop-in programs in a safe place with full meals, gender-identity support groups and on-site mental health therapy. Last year, the center saw 4,309 youth, and more than 800 homeless youth walk the streets daily. Sykes’ involvement began after Laura Hughes, executive director of Ruth Ellis, sent a letter, knowing the comedian would be in the area for a gig at Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel, to see if she’d stop by to meet the youth.
She obliged, and then went one step further: Sykes became an ally, speaking out on homeless LGBT youth, tweeting to her over 100,000 followers about the center and doing a PSA to acknowledge her commitment to Ruth Ellis.
“Places like the Ruth Ellis Center, I believe we need more of them all around the country,” she says. “It’s a blessing we have a place like Ruth Ellis.”
When she popped into the center two years ago, she was awestruck by the disheartening stories of parents who tried to beat the gay out of their child. Others disowned them completely. Having Sykes involved with Ruth Ellis is “threefold,” says Hughes.
“Increasing recognition of the experience of LGBTQ runaway and homeless youth, (being a) role model for LGBTQ youth across this nation and especially to our youth, and her frankness around her own relationships with her family and what it meant to their relationships when she came out: All three of these contribute to her raising the profile of our youth’s experience and the work we have to do to increase the permanency outcomes of LGBTQ youth and their families,” Hughes says.
Being gay (Sykes came out publicly in 2008) and raising a child with her wife of four years, Alex, makes the comedian more empathetic to the tragedies that brought these young people to the center in the first place – but even without both, she can’t imagine not feeling the same way.
“I’m human,” she says. “I don’t know how you cannot have compassion and feel for these kids. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Your parents are supposed to be your protectors, your guardians, your rock. Where you’re supposed to feel the safest is in your home. When that’s not the case, your whole world is turned upside down.”
Sykes had a different coming-out experience: She was in her late 40s, self-sufficient and independent, when she told her parents she was a lesbian.
“They had a really hard time with it,” she remembers. “It’s been about a little over eight years and they’re in a good place. We’re all in a good place. But it was hard, so I can’t imagine going through that when you’re a kid.”
Her message to young people who are experiencing homelessness: “There are people you don’t even know, strangers, who care about you and love you and want to help.”
Her role as a humanitarian was a career move that couldn’t have been foreseen by anyone who saw her in a 2001 movie called “Pootie Tang.” Of making the jump from silly-film actress to activist, she laughs: “That is a bit of a leap. It probably should’ve been ‘Pootie Tang’ to rehab.”
Her dual careers make balancing jokes with critical matters a challenge. How will she handle it at the benefit?
“It’s hard because this is something that’s heavy and serious, but I know people expect jokes when I show up – and I’m sure I’ll have something funny to say,” she says. “But I really want to get the message out there as far as what the Ruth Ellis Center is doing and also to encourage people to continue to help.”
Becoming a political activist and a stalwart voice for the gay community wasn’t ever part of the plan, she says, but it’s important, for her anyway, to use her celebrity status for a good cause. “I enjoy doing it, and there are so many people who don’t have a voice. If you can use yours to draw attention to a cause that needs some help – a worthy cause – then I say, ‘Why not?'”
Sykes is eager to help another cause, as well: getting Barack Obama elected for a second term.
“I’m feeling nervous for the country,” she says, laughing. “I really am. Man, when (New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie said ‘respect over love,’ I’m like, ‘What? I have never heard that before in my life.’ Like, really? ‘Please don’t ever start writing songs; you’d write the shittiest songs around.’ The Beatles didn’t say all you need is respect.”
She also takes down Chick-fil-A (“Just sell your damn chicken!”), and promises more of those wisecracks when she hosts another political panel for “NewNowNext Vote with Wanda Sykes” on Nov. 5, the eve of the election. The first of a two-part series aired Monday.
“I think this is what Logo should be doing,” she says. “Use the channel to be more informative and to talk about issues that are important to the LGBT community. I’m very happy to be a part of it. What we’re trying to do is to take both sides and just break it down.”
Break this down for us, Wanda: Is Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan easier to make fun of? Sykes laughs. “They’re equally awful.”

Voices with Wanda Sykes
MOCAD
4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit
5:30 p.m. Sept. 20
http://www.ruthelliscenter.org

About the Author:

Chris Azzopardi
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.