photo courtesy of Andrew Potter
Detroit's Invaluable LGBT Youth Center Has a Friend in Wanda

By Neal Broverman

Originally published on Advocate.com October 04 2012 7:00 AM ET

Los Angeles has a gleaming gay and lesbian center that takes up a whole block. New York cut the ribbon this year on the nation’s first hub for LGBT seniors. But far away from Hollywood and Manhattan, the preeminent resource for LGBT homeless youth in the Midwest, the Ruth Ellis Center, quietly changes lives in Detroit.

None other than Wanda Sykes is Ruth Ellis’s guardian angel. The out comedian and actress was the guest of honor at Ruth Ellis’s second annual Voices benefit September 20, where she cut a personal check for $15,000 for the center (after announcing PNC Bank’s donation of $15,000 to Ruth Ellis, Sykes said she’d match it. With perfect delivery, she turned to a PNC executive and muttered, “You said $15, right? No? Fifteen thousand? Sweet Jesus! Uh! Uh! I got it.”) The event, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and sponsored by philanthropic local companies including Cadillac, was as fancy as anything you’d find on the coasts, but with maybe a little less indifference.

Sykes became involved with the Ruth Ellis Center two years ago when she paid what was supposed to be a short visit to the agency. She ended up staying nearly three hours, listening to the stories of LGBT youth, many of whom were booted from their homes and sent to the unforgiving Detroit streets after coming out. Sykes later filmed a public service announcement for the center, reminding people, “Forty percent of homeless youth in Detroit identify as LGBT. The majority of these youths were kicked out of their homes just because of who they are attracted to.”

It’s hard enough for many families to get by in Detroit, with an unemployment rate that hovers around 20%, but for those who are young, homeless, and queer, the odds are stacked ridiculously high. The Ruth Ellis Center was named in honor of an African-American lesbian born in 1899, who shared her home and resources with struggling LGBT Detroiters for much of the 20th century; local activists honored her legacy by establishing the center in 1999. Its services include a street outreach program, a drop-in center for youth and young adults aged 14-24, and two residential programs that allow teenagers a semi-independent experience and young adults a transitional living program that prepares them for life on their own.

Speaking of Detroit’s problems, Sykes said at the Voices event, “Detroit, you’ve got a lot goin’ on.” But the center, led by executive director Laura Hughes, is certainly a source of pride and hope for LGBT Detroit, including the 4,000 kids the center serves every year. It’s hard to dismiss the Motor City as a lost cause after meeting some of the young people plucked from the street by the center. This is how Sykes described those she’s encountered at Ruth Ellis: “Resilient, strong, honest, sincere. These kids are so much stronger than I could ever be. … You did more for me than I could ever do for you. And it is reassuring and it gives me confidence to know that there is such an amazing network of support, not only in New York and L.A., but there’s a top-of-the-line place in Detroit available for these wonderful young people.”

To find out more about the Ruth Ellis Center or to donate, click here.