Black and Gay Like Me
BY Ari Karpel
February 02 2009 12:00 AM ET
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.