Black and Gay Like Me
BY Ari Karpel
February 02 2009 12:00 AM ET
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…?’?”