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

February 02 2009 1:00 AM ET

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Wanda Sykes x390 (CBS) | Advocate.com 

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.”

Tags: People

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