Black and Gay Like Me
After Wanda Sykes stood up in front of a crowd of thousands and declared that she’s a lesbian, she became a poster girl for black and gay America, whether she likes it or not.
By Ari Karpel
From The Advocate March 2009
When Wanda Sykes strolled onstage at the Trevor Project’s annual Cracked Xmas fund-raiser last December in Los Angeles, the crowd leapt to its feet in a standing ovation. After the applause and whoops subsided the comedian quipped, “Oh, come on, it ain’t like you never seen a black lesbian before.”
In a sense, they hadn’t. While well-known actors like T.R. Knight and Neil Patrick Harris have come out of the closet in recent years without breaking the stride of their mainstream careers, African-Americans have been conspicuously absent from the parade of “Yep, I’m Gay” magazine covers. And when the 44-year-old comedian told a Las Vegas rally on November 15 that she and her wife had been married just weeks earlier, it was the first time anyone outside Hollywood and Sykes’s circle of friends and family knew for sure that she was gay. “When California passed Prop. 8…I felt like I was being personally attacked, our community was attacked,” she said. “They pissed off the wrong group of people!”
Onstage -- and on Curb Your Enthusiasm -- Sykes is the angry loudmouth, hilariously outraged at the injustices of the world. Her trademark is her voice, which always rises as she spits out expletives to expertly cut through any bull that sparks her anger -- whether it’s directed at former president George W. Bush (“Either he’s retarded or he thinks we’re retarded”) or people who oppose marriage equality (“Why do you care that Bob and Jim are getting married, unless you were planning on fucking Bob or Jim?”).
With that mouth, you’d think Sykes would have come out of the closet a long time ago, and as far as she’s concerned, she did. She’s performed at gay pride festivals and on the True Colors Tour -- and even did stand-up aboard a gay cruise. She also shot a public-service announcement for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network last year and spoke out against California’s Proposition 8 on the Ellen show a week before the election. But with all her shtick about her ex-husband and their failed marriage (“We were married seven years, no kids. So we went out of business. No inventory”), her fans can be forgiven for assuming that Sykes was a well-meaning straight ally. After all, her straight New Adventures of Old Christine costar Julia Louis-Dreyfus also spoke out against Prop. 8 on Ellen (and in this magazine)—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Now that she’s out of the closet, what kind of lesbian spokeswoman will Sykes be? Will the take-no-prisoners ferocity of her Comedy Central and HBO specials be put to use on behalf of her fellow gay people? Will she be the in-your-face Rosie O’Donnell of African-American gays? Or will she be the more aw-shucks Ellen DeGeneres type? With anger running high among gays over blacks’ perceived opposition to marriage equality and with only a handful of high-profile African-Americans out in Hollywood, will Sykes be the healing link between two simmering worlds?
Sitting down for her first -- and, she says, only -- significant interview about her coming-out, Sykes is soft-spoken almost to the point of being subdued. Nursing a midday glass of wine at Smokehouse, a restaurant across the street from the Warner Bros. studio where Old Christine is shot, she’s reluctant to open up about her personal life. Granting this interview has put her in the position of being asked questions she’s not sure she wants to answer -- questions like “When did you realize you were a lesbian?” and “Why did your first marriage end?”
“This is weird,” she complains. “This is for The Advocate, right?” Right. “So why do you need to know this stuff? Isn’t it just preaching to the choir?”
Sykes may be uneasy getting personal, but she has a firm grasp on why it’s important for an African-American celebrity to help normalize homosexuality. “There’s such a stigma about being gay that a lot of the men don’t want to be labeled as gay, so they live straight lives, and then, behind closed doors, they’re fooling around with men, bringing HIV home to their wives,” she says, stepping confidently onto a soapbox. “We’re literally killing ourselves over this fear of homosexuality.” In an effort to address these issues and “build this bridge” between gays and blacks, Sykes joined the board of Equality California in November. “One of the things that’s so terrific about Wanda is she’s not rushing out there to be the face of anything,” says Geoff Kors, the gay rights organization’s executive director. “She actually wanted to figure out how she could roll up her sleeves and get involved, to come to board meetings, to engage in dialogue to change hearts and minds.”
So far, Sykes is still finding her voice as an activist. But if her history is any indication, there’s little doubt she’ll end up saying whatever she feels.
Sykes’s penchant for running off at the mouth started early. As she was growing up in Gambrills, Md., little Wanda was shuttled off to her grandmother’s any time company was coming over, for fear of what she’d say. “If I knew someone owed my parents money and they’d come over to the house with something new on,” she says, “I’d be like, ‘Are those new shoes? You owe my dad $50. What are you doing wearing new shoes?’ ” Sykes says she was just voicing things she knew her parents wanted to say but couldn’t.
It’s the same role she’s taken on as a comedian. But Sykes was 28 years old before she found the career for which she’d been born. “When you’re in the Maryland-D.C. area, you end up working for the government,” she says. Her father was an Army colonel who worked at the Pentagon, and her mother was a banker. So, after college (Sykes studied marketing at Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia), she did just that: She spent five years as a contracting specialist for the National Security Agency, an intelligence branch of the Defense Department. The young woman with the big mouth was stuck doing paperwork, and she was bored. “I still had the same personality -- I was funny at work -- but it got to the point of, like, I’m just wasting my time here.”
Inspired by an ad for a local talent competition, Sykes finally got up onstage in 1987, told some jokes, and was hooked. She lost the contest but continued doing stand-up on nights and weekends. In 1992 she quit her day job and moved to New York City, where, after a few years on the comedy circuit, she got a gig opening for Chris Rock at Carolines. That led to a writing-performing stint on HBO’s The Chris Rock Show, a position as commentator on that network’s Inside the NFL, and a string of roles in movies including Pootie Tang.
Just before moving to New York, Sykes married record producer David Hall. “I actually made the choice to be straight as a kid,” she says. “Early on I knew [being gay] wasn’t gonna fly. No way. And from the teachers and church and all it was, This is wrong! What’s wrong with me? And you pray and ask God to take it away, and you bury it and bury it, and you shut that part of yourself off. Then you try to live the life that you’re supposed to live.”
She and Hall divorced in 1998, but Sykes is careful to clarify that her marriage didn’t end because of her sexual orientation. “It had nothing to do with that. My marriage was fine. I think it was just…I don’t want to get too much into that.” She hesitates, and then continues, “It’s just that when you bury a part of yourself, you can take those relationships only so far because you can’t be totally open. Once we were divorced there was a defining, liberating moment of, OK, I’m free of this marriage, now what? It’s kind of like giving yourself permission. I guess that’s when I started actively dating women.”
In 2006, Sykes went on a weeklong, end-of-summer vacation with friends to Cherry Grove, one of two predominantly gay communities on New York’s Fire Island. (“I’m not making that Pines money,” she says of the neighboring, ritzier enclave, Fire Island Pines. “But it’s so nice over at the Pines. Nice coffee shops, gourmet foods, and all that crap over there.”) It was a nasty, rainy day, but on the ferry ride to the island Sykes spotted an intriguing woman. “She had on this black trench coat and was carrying a computer bag,” she says. “I was like, We’re going to Fire Island -- what the hell is she doing with her laptop?”
It wasn’t so much the trench coat or the laptop, though, that sparked Sykes’s attention. “She just caught my eye,” she says. And that’s when something happened that she’d never experienced before. “It was like a voice inside me saying, See? That’s what you need, Wanda. That’s what you need.” Sykes’s eyes well up with tears as she tells the story. “She’s beautiful, but there was just this aura about her. We’ve been inseparable since.” Inseparable and protective: Sykes, walking a tightrope, will not say what her wife does for a living. In fact, she tells the whole story of their meeting without once uttering her wife’s name. Later Sykes decided to give us her first name, Alexandra, for the article. “She’s not in show business. I want her to have as much of her private life as she can.”
Two years later, emboldened by the California supreme court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality, she and Alexandra decided to make it official. “This was it,” Sykes explains. “We’re in love and we want to spend the rest of our lives together. That’s why you get married.” So they rented a small hotel in Palm Springs and were married in a simple ceremony before about 40 friends and family members. “We had an amazing weekend. I don’t like to talk about it. It was a very special moment for us, for our friends. I like to keep that.” Sykes is happy—and obviously sentimental: “Even looking at the pictures, I just go back to that moment and get all teary-eyed.”
On November 4, still riding high on the joy of their recent nuptials, Sykes and Alexandra were lifted even higher at the news of Barack Obama’s victory. But just a few hours later, like so many progressive Californians, they experienced emotional whiplash as it became evident that Prop. 8 had passed.
As an African-American in a week-old marriage, it stung Sykes even more when reports started coming in that black voters had overwhelmingly sided with the antigay measure. (Initial reports that 70% of African-Americans voters supported Prop. 8 have recently been debunked; a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute study has shown that a more accurate number is 57%–59%.) She said it felt as if her family was being attacked. “Like, hey I’m sitting here living my life and suddenly the government -- the people, really -- walked in the door to our living room and said, ‘No, you’re not allowed to do this.’ And that’s frightening.”
At first, the comedian says, she felt guilty and wondered if she should have been more outspoken. “I mean, I wrote the checks and signed the petitions and did all that, but could I have done more?” Then she realized that, for her, doing more would mean one thing: coming out publicly. It was a wake-up call, she says. “Now I have to be in your face.” So, that night, she and Alexandra discussed it. “I said, ‘This is what I feel I have to do,’ and she was totally supportive. She was like, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ ” The next morning, Sykes called someone she’d met years before but barely knew -- out gay actor Doug Spearman (Noah’s Arc), who is African-American and who, as Sykes remembered, served on Equality California’s board of directors.
“I had no idea Wanda was gay,” Spearman says today. “But she is a huge hero of mine—as an actress, as a comedian, and as a working black person.” Perhaps that’s why he didn’t believe it really was Sykes who’d left him a voice mail that morning. “I thought, Somebody’s playing a little tricky trick on me.”
But Sykes persisted, texting and telephoning Spearman until the two finally spoke and planned to meet for lunch, where Sykes told him she was ready to come out publicly. Right away, Spearman says, he expressed concern for Sykes’s career. “As much as I’d like to be Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk saying, ‘You must come out, you must come out,’ everyone has to do what’s right for them,” he says. “And I told her [that coming out] has huge ramifications for your career. If you do anything that makes people in Hollywood say ‘I can’t hire you,’ you’re taking a big risk.”
But Sykes had already thought that through. Plenty of comedians are out of the closet, she argued. And besides, she never gets cast as the love interest anyway. Whether she’s playing the sassy aide to Steve Carell’s congressman (Evan Almighty), the long-suffering assistant to Jane Fonda’s veteran news anchor (Monster-in-Law), or Luke Wilson’s mouthy boss (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), Sykes always plays the single black woman. “People really don’t think of me in a sexual context,” she says matter-of-factly. “They don’t look at Wanda Sykes and think sex.”
Sykes was scheduled to perform at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas the weekend of November 15, when post–Prop. 8 rallies were planned at city halls and statehouses across the country, and she intended to attend the local demonstration with friends. She’d gone to marches in Los Angeles in the days immediately following the election, but no one paid much attention to her. Las Vegas was a different story, though. Just when Sykes thought the speeches were over and people were preparing to march, one of the event’s organizers announced, “There’s a rumor Wanda Sykes is out there.” So, as she’d done thousands of times before, Sykes jumped onto the stage. Only this time, she told no jokes and used no profanity.
“It was from the heart,” she says today of her speech. “I just said what I said; I don’t really talk about my sexual orientation. I wasn’t in the closet, but I was just living my life. Everybody who knows me personally knows I’m gay. And that’s the way people should be able to live their lives, really. We shouldn’t have to be standing out here demanding something we automatically should have as citizens of this country.” She ended the impromptu presentation with a statement of pride: “I’m proud to be a woman, I’m proud to be a black woman, and I’m proud to be gay. Let’s go get our damn equal rights.”
By the time she’d returned to her hotel room, news that Sykes had come out of the closet was on the CNN crawl. “I was like, Damn, whatever happened to ‘What happens in Vegas…?’ ”
Sykes resists the notion that she might become some sort of poster child. “I can only give you my perspective, and I don’t represent all black lesbians,” she says, a little defensively. “Right now my attention is equal rights for the gay community because personally that’s the one that’s really affecting me right now. I’m sure as I get more involved I’ll see the [racial] divide and that’s when I’ll go, ‘Oh, my God, that’s fucked up. Why is there this divide?’”
For someone accustomed to years of suppressing her sexual orientation, it seems natural to compartmentalize identities. But she’s quick to point out that it’s easy -- and dangerous -- to generalize about any group of people. “[African-Americans] are not all this homogenous group. If you live in your little community and you don’t know gay people and you don’t know that we’re loving people and we all want the same things, then you won’t be able to identify with them or care about that other group.” And she’s more diplomatic than her stand-up persona might suggest: “Speaking from the people I know,” she says, “it’s tougher for a black person to come out [than it is for someone who’s white]. Then again, I’m sure there’s some white people from the Bible Belt who have been disowned from their families and have had a hard time.”
Sykes’s longtime friend Chris Rock puts it more bluntly: “It’s harder being black, and it’s harder being a woman. Everything’s harder if you’re black. It’s harder chewing gum,” he quips. And Nadine Smith, executive director of the gay rights organization Equality Florida, believes that humor will ultimately be Sykes’s most important tool: “What Wanda most needs to continue to do is be funny and draw audiences and find the innovative and clever ways she always has to drop some knowledge on people and open their minds.” That said, Sykes also doesn’t intend to become a “lesbian comedian.” “I can’t do that,” she says. “I’m still me. I was born a lesbian, I just didn’t talk about it, so there’s always been that perspective.”
“She’s a private person,” says her costar Louis-Dreyfus. “So [coming out] was a big decision for her. I’m proud of her.” Even at work, among friends, Sykes keeps personal information to herself. On the weekend Sykes got married, Louis-Dreyfus called to invite the couple over for a game night. “She said, ‘I can’t, I’m out of town,’” Louis-Dreyfus says. “She didn’t even tell me she was getting married! That’s how private she is.”
It’s not that she’s trying to be secretive, Sykes says: “I don’t shut anyone out, but I’m not overly open.” As far as she’s concerned, she’s been out of the closet for years. “I was out at work, I was out to my family, I was out to my friends. I lived my life as a lesbian,” she says. “But because I’m a celebrity I have to do this additional step, which is to tell total strangers that I’m a lesbian.”
Despite her annoyance at that additional step, the past few months have been more meaningful than she anticipated. “I didn’t know it would be this liberating,” she declares. And yet there’s one area in which she still has a way to go. “I hate identifying myself as a celebrity,” she says, only half joking. “I’m still not there. I’m a closeted celebrity.”