In Wanda Sykes’ latest comedy special “Not Normal” she takes on everything from the Trump administration, the #MeToo movement and racism; it’s clear that over the course of her 30-year career Sykes has been fearlessly outspoken. That confidence also translates to the charitable causes she supports, too. An out lesbian, Sykes has used her platform to aid LGBTQ groups like The Trevor Project, GLAAD, The True Colors Fund and even Detroit’s own Ruth Ellis Center, which works to prevent homelessness among the city’s LGBTQ youth. In part because of her trademark candor, Sykes is being honored this year at REC’s upcoming VOICES Gala fundraiser on Thursday, Sept. 26.
As is tradition, a recipient of the Ruth Ellis Legacy Award is chosen who embodies the same spirit of activism in their field as Ellis herself — an African-American lesbian activist who came out in 1915 and by the 1930s was providing shelter and support to LGBTQ people without a safety net. REC Director of Development and Advancement Mark Erwin-McCormick said that for this year, the Emmy Award-winning comedian was the obvious choice.
“This year being the 20th anniversary, a really monumental year, we wanted to highlight somebody who came on as an early supporter of the Center, before it had grown into what it is today, and Wanda is that person. She was the first national figure to use their platform to bring greater awareness to the work of the Center and the Legacy of Ruth Ellis,” he said. “And it seemed fitting that for the 20th anniversary we honor her in this way.”
Sykes has been using her influence to publicly support REC since 2012. But as commonplace as it might be to see Sykes at pro-LGBTQ charity events like this one, it wasn’t until her late 30s that she began to realize the importance of the work at organizations like REC. Ahead of the Gala, Between The Lines caught up with Sykes to learn more about why that is, to get her thoughts on what it means to create a pro-LGBTQ legacy and why she feels it’s her responsibility to use her platform for more than just jokes.
You’re receiving the Ruth Ellis Center’s Legacy Award. What does creating a pro-LGBTQ legacy mean to you?
I don’t think one ever feels like they’re worthy of such an award, you know? It’s humbling but it’s also — I appreciate that they want to do this for me, but Ruth Ellis, she did so much without the platform that I have. More boots on the ground. So, for me, what I can lend to the organization and try to help is exactly that, it’s a platform. I can use the notoriety to bring awareness to such an organization. Because I guess that’s my skill, my talent, you know? But I have so much respect for people who are there day-to-day, doing the work. So, for me to accept this honor is mainly just to be there and thank the people who are the boots on the ground, who are actually making a huge difference in the lives of these kids.
Do you believe it’s a comedian’s responsibility to use their platform for causes like this one?
I do, because that’s one of the things that I’m interested in. My comedy is grounded in the real world, and for me to not talk about it, to not say, ‘Hey, I’m aware of what’s going on,’ it just feels like I’ve been intentionally avoiding it. And I also believe as an artist that — it’s not that I don’t knock other comedians who just want to get up on stage and tell a joke, our job is to make people laugh. But the comics that I admire, the ones that I looked up to growing up were the comics who were also socially and politically involved and used the comedy to touch on subjects — especially for people who were in the margins.
Have you seen a shift in recent years of other comedians focusing more on the political? You’ve mentioned that you had other things on your mind when other presidents were in office.
Yeah, because it’s so crazy now (laughs). You can’t help it. Even if you’re not political, I don’t see how you can avoid it. Unless you’re a straight white guy, but then who cares? “Life is good, who cares, you know? It doesn’t matter. Why do I need to vote? My life is always going to be great for me. I’m a straight white guy. I’m good.” But, yeah. I think politically when times are not so crazy and just kind of calm then it’s easier to just talk about your kids (laughs) or just life in general, but we’re living in these times right now. I don’t see how you can avoid it.
Ruth Ellis is a beacon of hope for many in the LGBTQ community. Growing up, did you ever have anyone who you looked up to who was in the LGBTQ community? Or did that ever come to you later in life?
No. It wasn’t until later in life when I kind of developed a group of friends who were gay or lesbian, and mainly from work with doing shows or in the entertainment business. Those were the people I came across and built my little family. It started there.
What first made you aware of the importance of the work REC was doing?
I think what opened my eyes was I was almost 40, a grown woman, on my own, financially sound. And when I came out to my family, how hard that was. We went through a period where they weren’t really talking to me that much and not really involved in my life. And I just looked at it and went, “Wow, I’m going through this, someone who really isn’t in need of anything just the love and support of my family.” And then I said, “Wow, how magnified that is when you’re 16 or 15 and now you don’t have the love and support, but now financially you’re out.” I couldn’t imagine that happening and living life like that. So, that was the wake up for me. Like, how I was feeling going through it who had the means to take care of themselves and living a great life, (laughs) surrounded by people screaming and loving me and a team of people working for me. I just thought about a kid without any of those things, how hard it would be for them.
You’ve spoken in interviews before about how it’s hard to be funny in an era that is so ridiculous politically right now. How do you stay hopeful and positive?
Wow. Well, I am a person of faith, so I rely on that. Also, I look at the last election. I don’t know how much meddling was done with the numbers, but the majority of people, I think, who vote (laughs) want things to be equal and they’re on the right side. I look at that and just the day-to-day people I meet, and strangers in the streets. Like this lady today, she got off the elevator when I got off and just told me how much she appreciated the [Netflix “Not Normal”] special and the things I said and how important it is. So, yeah, I think there are [so] many like-minded people out there that I know we’re going to get this right. And also, historically, just being African-American and a minority and woman, we’ve had a tougher battle. I just believe as they say, “We shall overcome.” So, I believe it’s gonna happen. It’ll get better.
Do you have a piece of advice to share with one of the kids at the Ruth Ellis Center?
Just to never give up and always remember that you are loved. Someone loves you and cares about you. And someone’s going to be there to help you. It might not be that day that you expect it, but it’s gonna happen.
The REC VOICES Gala is on Thursday, Sept. 26 at the Gem Theatre in Detroit. This year’s presenting sponsor is Cadillac. Melissa Grady is Cadillac’s chief marketing officer. She said she’s thrilled to support the organization. “The Ruth Ellis Center has been a safe haven for Detroit’s LGBTQ+ young people, providing critical services to help them build strong futures. Cadillac is honored to support that work and celebrate the center’s 20-year commitment to the rise of the LGBTQ+ community in Detroit.” Find out more about the event online at ruthelliscenter.org.