Comedian Sandra Bernhard Gets Serious about LGBTQ Youth

Kate Opalewski
By | 2016-09-29T09:00:00-04:00 September 29th, 2016|Michigan, News|

DETROIT – The Ruth Ellis Center hosted their annual fundraising gala, Voices, on Sept. 22 to grow their base of supporters, express gratitude for current donors and celebrate the agency’s mission and success.
Their signature event, presented by Lear Corporation at the Waterview Loft at Port Detroit, provides critical funding to help continue annual operations at the REC which have allowed the organization to serve runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth for the last 17 years.
“I love to see things happening in Michigan, seeing Michigan reinvigorating and Detroit just coming to life,” said special celebrity guest Sandra Bernhard, who flew in from New York to show her support.
“I was totally blown away,” she said about her visit to the REC before her scheduled appearance at the benefit.
“I love that Ruth Ellis herself was one of the founding members of gay rights in Michigan. She established a place where people could come and find some solace. It’s just so perfect that she’s the namesake. I am very impressed by that. And I’m impressed with the whole take on how to communicate with families and how to get families on board to accept the children so that kids can go back home and be at home where they belong with their family. It’s heartbreaking when you see and hear all of these things,” said Bernhard, a mother of an 18-year-old daughter.
Although she was raised from the age of 10 in Scottsdale, Arizona, Bernhard was born in Flint. Members of her family who still live in the mitten state joined Bernhard for dinner on the venue’s patio which overlooks the Detroit River and the glistening Canadian skyline.
When asked how she connects with African-American LGBTQ youth, the fellow Michigander expressed her compassion and empathy for the entire African-American community across the country.
“I was always connected with the music, the culture, the creativity, and I never understood why it had to be such a struggle and why it continues to be such a struggle. I don’t understand it. I feel without the black culture we wouldn’t be the country we are,” she said, noting that she has also been around the LGBTQ scene and in the trenches since moving to L.A. as a teenager.
“This evolution of the youth being so much more in touch with their sexuality and gender, it’s very impressive because when I was young we didn’t talk about it. I approached it from a completely different angle, so it’s very inspiring and interesting in many ways to see everybody coming to their understanding of it at such a young age,” she said.
So many feelings and emotions were expressed throughout the evening of Voices as guests enjoyed a silent auction, open bar, appetizers and the opportunity to share in an extraordinary legacy.
“The thing that really impacts me the most at this point in my life and my career … I see how many incredible people there are in the world wherever I go. I do select events throughout the year, many of them being LGBTQ-oriented events … I marvel at the amount of people who dedicate their lives to doing things for people every day that are seemingly quotidian, endless, maybe never without getting any sort of accolades, and I think, ‘Could I do that?’ And I don’t know if I could. Because it’s so great when I can just step in and be glamorous … I know that on a bigger, psychic emotional level, these things trickle down,” Bernhard said.

REC Executive Director Jerry Peterson presented HFHS CEO Nancy Schlichting with this year’s Ruth’s Angel’s Award, given to individuals in the community who demonstrate dedication to helping provide a safe space for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. Photos: Jenna Belevender
She continued, “What a world. We’re always in this kind of battle politically, you know, just the human spirit and the day-to-day work that people do is so moving, that you just kind of have to push everything aside and just go, ‘I’m just keeping on my blinders and I’m moving ahead’ because, you know, the world has changed in so many remarkable ways,” she said. “So you can be cynical and you can be the kind of person who just doesn’t see it or doesn’t care, but everybody in this room gets it, knows it, you’re in the trenches with it and it’s so inspiring. We’ve really built an incredible world. It’s important to remember that tonight.”

Wellness Center Campaign

Voices drew attention to the REC’s new Health and Wellness Center for which there is an ongoing capital campaign. The space is scheduled to open this year to expand their services in Highland Park and Detroit to provide LGBTQ youth (whom the REC already serves) access to mental health, substance use disorder treatment and prevention, and primary healthcare. This is made possible as a result of a partnership with the Henry Ford Health System.
REC Executive Director Jerry Peterson presented HFHS CEO Nancy Schlichting with this year’s Ruth’s Angel’s Award, given to individuals in the community who demonstrate dedication to helping provide a safe space for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
During the presentation, Schlichting spoke to hundreds of community members that attended to honor the services that the REC provides.
“As a gay leader, this community has embraced me. The Henry Ford Health System has embraced me in a way that I think is just extraordinary. I tell everyone I know that this is the best place I have ever lived in my entire life,” she said.
The agency currently operates four core services: a residential housing program known as Ruth’s House, the Second Stories Drop-In Center, Second Stories Outpatient Mental Health Services, and the Family Preservation Program, an innovative two-year pilot with significant state-wide implications.
“What makes this so special is, frankly, the people I get to work with everyday. Our team just jumped at the opportunity to help design and build the new health and wellness center and provide the services these young people need in such an important way,” Schlichting said.
“I am so proud of them and so proud of our health system for being a place that’s welcoming to all people. We are selective about partnerships in the community because we want to make sure that they work. I told Jerry that when we met and I saw the quality of leadership that he’s providing and the commitment and talents of the team, it was really easy to jump on board and create this partnership. It’s a sustainable program that people can count on.”
Which is important for the 817 unique individuals as of June 2016 who call Highland Park or Detroit their place of residence and access REC services with varying rates of intensity and duration. Around 500 youth and young adults access services annually, of which 10 percent are ages 13-17, 80 percent are ages 18-24, and 10 percent are ages 24-30. Of them, 40 percent are living with HIV.
Elliott Broom, board chair of the REC, is an African-American gay man who shared with the audience that he is able to live comfortably in his own skin. He would have hoped that young LGBTQ people could do the same by 2016, and be accepted by their families, by their friends and by society.
“But unfortunately, that still isn’t the case. The Ruth Ellis Center is there for all the young ladies and men who need support,” he said, reminding guests that 40 percent of all youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ.
“We couldn’t do what we do without all of you. We thank you for what you’ve done in the past, what you continue to do, and what you’ll do in the future.”
Bernhard, a one-of-a-kind comic diva, said she didn’t feel like being funny or silly that night.
“There’s so much pressure,” she said. “I feel like we’re right on the precipice of tipping over the scale in America. It’s just sad because, you know, what does everybody want? Everybody wants to be loved, everybody wants a place to go home at night. Everybody wants to feel comfortable and yet people push it away and their fear and their anger, you know, overrides the day. And look, it’s just so unnecessary, and I’m just so happy and I feel so thankful everyday that I’m on the other side of the scale. I’m on the side that says, ‘Wow, life is always an adventure.’ I always get to meet incredible people wherever I go. I have my connection to my past, to my present, to my future. I see it in my daughter. I don’t know; I just think America’s an incredible place. It’s an emotional place. It’s place that’s always tipping the scale … I just want to say that when I leave here tonight, I will continue to put out the good word for the Ruth Ellis Center and do whatever I can.”
REC Director of Development Mark Erwin-McCormick asked potential donors to do whatever they can before closing out the presentation.
“Take a moment to consider what the Ruth Ellis Center means to you, what it means to this community, and most importantly, what it means to the young people who rely on our services every single day.”
Lead sponsors for this year’s Voices gala were Comerica Bank, PNC Bank, Just Energy Foundation, Cadillac, DTE Energy, Credit Adjustments, Pride Source Media Group, Henry Grix and Howard Israel, Jeff Antaya and Peter Rosenfeld, Robert and Connie Sfire, John Allen and Steve Orlando, ISCG, MGM Grand Detroit, Bank of America, Ernst & Young, HFHS, WDET, North American Bankcard, St. John Providence, Flagstaff Bank, and Mariner’s Inn. Signage was donated by Detroit Wallpaper. Floral arrangements were donated by Bellisario Florist.
To contribute to the REC Health and Wellness Center’s capital campaign, please contact Erwin-McCormick at 313-680-3359 or

About the Author:

Kate Opalewski
Kate Opalewski is BTL's features editor and has been since 2015. She has covered a variety of topics ranging from art, politics and community outreach. Recently, she was honored by the Detroit Police Department LGBT Advisory Board for her work for the local LGBTQIA community.