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Detroit’s Ruth Ellis Center celebrated its 20th anniversary in style as a crowd of nearly 400 turned out for the Thursday, Sept. 26, VOICES Gala at Detroit’s historical Gem Theatre. During this milestone birthday, REC made sure to commemorate awardees who exemplify the spirit of the Center’s namesake, Ruth Ellis. The Legacy Award was given to openly lesbian comedian and actress Wanda Sykes, and two Youth Impact Awards were given to RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Shangela and vocalist and trans right activist Shea Diamond.
Sykes’ history with REC goes back to 2010, when she was approached by then executive director Laura Hughes.
“She reached out to my assistant and saw that I was performing here at the Fox and told us a little bit about the center and the work that they were doing,” Sykes recalled. “She asked if I would find it in my schedule to pass by and say hello and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And we took it from there.”
When asked why she chose to take time out of her schedule to visit the Ruth Ellis Center and not another nonprofit doing work of another kind, Sykes said she had seen the benefits of aiding LGBTQ youth firsthand.
“The work they do is very important, and this is the only place these kids have and it gets cold here,” she said. “In LA we have the largest center in the country. I knew how important this center was and the support they were giving to the kids here. I wanted them to know, ‘Hey, we see you.’ And not only the people who work there but the kids and let them know we love them.”
On stage, accepting the award, Sykes recalled the rejection she faced when she came out to her parents and why that gave her a unique empathy for the children being helped by the Ruth Ellis Center today.
“When I came out I was in my 40s, living in LA. … When I came out to my parents it wasn’t well-received at all,” Sykes said. “We basically stopped talking. And it was immediate. And at 40 years old I felt abandoned. These are the people who brought me into the world.
“The thing is though, I’m 40, living in my home,” Sykes continued. “So even though it did hurt and I felt alone, I had the luxury of just going outside and having a good cry next to my heated swimming pool,” she continued. “I wasn’t out here in these streets worrying about where I was going to sleep or where my next meal was going to come from or who was going to pay for my schooling, my education. I had everything. But it hurt. So, I can’t imagine what these kids go through.”
Shangela, aka D.J Pierce, spoke to Between The Lines about receiving her honor, too. She echoed some of Sykes’ sentiments and said she was “thrilled” to have been thought of for a Youth Impact Award recipient.
“I always think of the impact they made on me,” she said. “I just finished a 184-city tour around the world last year, and the crazy thing is I get so many amazing people in really special moments, at a meet-and-greet after the show or even in a message online that says, ‘This is how you’ve changed my life,’ or, ‘This is how you’ve impacted me.’ That inspires me in those times when I go, ‘Do I want to keep going?’ And yes, I do, and I’m invigorated to do even more.”
The event’s second Youth Impact Award winner, Shea Diamond, is a transgender woman who spent 10 years in a men’s prison for armed robbery. While incarcerated, Diamond wrote a song called “I Am Her,” which has become an anthem for many trans women. She spoke of how being incarcerated as a trans woman who was moved from facility to facility mirrored the difficulties of going through the foster care system.
“It was the same thing as being a product of the foster care system,” Diamond said. “I was shuffled from one foster home to the next because of being trans. So, with ‘I Am Her’ I was able to express all these emotions, all these feelings I couldn’t say to people face-to-face.”
Diamond said she was humbled by the award.
“I literally thought I had seen it all,” she said. “That life had dealt me my cards and that’s all there would be. Incarceration, I knew what that looked like. Foster homes, I’ve been a product of every system already. So, I just thought that’s what my life would be. I thought I would probably die in prison. But I made it out of there and now I’m a signed artist.”
Additional awards were given out to the Detroit City Football Club and the Northern Guard Supporters — who received the Ruth’s Angel Award — and to Cassidy “CC” Alsaro — who won a Youth Leadership Award.
Reflecting on the center’s exponential growth over the past 20 years, Executive Director Jerry Peterson said it all began with Ruth. He recounted the time when, on Sept. 19, 2000, a 101-year-old Ruth cut the ribbon on the first-ever youth drop-in center.
“I just imagine that she breathed something into the universe that still is with us,” Peterson said. “She breathed life into the young people she cared about. She would breathe life into this organization and she herself passed from this life to the next just two weeks later.
“That breath of life has moved this organization from a 500-square-foot space above an adult bookstore at Six Mile and Woodward to what is now four facilities, 26,000 square feet,” Peterson continued. “And we’re about to be onboarding staff member 57 and 58 and we have an aspirational budget for 2020 of $3.5 million. None of that could be done without that breath of Ruth inspiring people throughout these entire 20 years.”