Sometimes it's funny what people find funny. Some people can take a serious issue and have you laughing uncontrollably before you stop for a moment and wonder just what you're laughing at.
Comedian Wanda Sykes does just that in her recently debuted HBO concert special I'ma Be Me. Her work pokes holes in the thin membrane between what some consider the sacred and the profane in our society.
For instance, some African-Americans think President Barack Obama is of such a historic importance that he shouldn't be criticized — or even kidded. Sykes doesn't seem to care. During her show she carried on about the sexual attraction between the president and the first lady, and declared that there is indeed some fucking going on in the White House.
But for mentioning the unmentionable, Sykes saved her finest fare for discussing her own life as a lesbian. The comedian came out publicly last year after the November election. The passage of Proposition 8, the California anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment — and a similar prohibition in Florida — drove her to it.
As much as Sykes likes to talk race, in the HBO special she claims that being gay is tougher than being black. After all, she quips, she never had to sit down with her family and come out as black. The bit induced thunderous laughter and applause.
So it's all good for someone like Sykes, famous comedian and actress, who can flaunt being black, female and gay for big bucks.
It's a whole different world for average young people whose emergent sexual awareness doesn't fit the assumptions a lot of us grow up with. There are few safe, warm places for them to work things out.
For Detroiter Bobby Foote, acknowledgment of her sexual orientation in her family was much less comfortable than for Sykes standing in front of her audience. Foote was living with her grandmother in 2001 when, at age 16, her lesbianism was uncovered. Alarmed, Foote's grandmother set up a meeting with the minister of their Baptist church. Somehow the information leaked to the congregation.
"I came to church and nobody wanted to sit by me, nobody wanted to talk to me," she remembers. "I felt like an outcast but what was I going to do about it? I understood the dynamics of my sexual orientation."
Her family life had always been strained. She'd been raised by her father's mother since age 6, and only knew that side of the family. The outing untied those relationships and they remain so to this day.
"They were not accepting who I am," she says. "Anything can tear a family apart. It's especially difficult for African-American lesbian women who are categorized as aggressive. They have a hard time with a woman playing a male role."
Foote wound up back with her mother, whom she hadn't lived with for a decade. Her sexual orientation still was not accepted.
"She tried to keep me from all girls and I had to see a psychologist," Foote says. "She cried a lot and tried to keep me going to church. She wasn't accepting of it at all. It took about four years for her to really be OK with it."
Foote liked playing the rebel, and by age 18 she was on her own, working sometimes, but struggling to find her way with few skills in a crumbling local economy.
In 2005, she hit a low spot when a relationship went sour and she was kicked out of her girlfriend's apartment. Homeless, she took the advice of a friend who urged her to check out the Ruth Ellis Center, whose website promises short- and long-term residential and support services for "runaway, homeless and at-risk gay, lesbian, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning youth in Detroit and southeastern Michigan." It's where Foote found a safe environment and a steady base where she could start building her life.
"I thought it was impressive," says Foote. "I wasn't expecting to walk into group home or shelter-type situation and see it set up so well. It was really comfortable."
That sense of comfort and safety is what Ruth Ellis sought for young people on the sexual margins in our society. Ellis, born in 1899, was the oldest "out" black lesbian known. She lived in Detroit from 1938 until her death in 2000. Ellis owned her own printing business, and for 25 years starting in 1946, she opened her home in the black community to gays and lesbians on weekends. She even gave some financial aid and helped some pay their college expenses.
Today the center provides two core services with a 10-bed residential house in Detroit, and a Highland Park drop-in center open from 3 to 10 p.m. weekdays, where young people can get a meal, take a shower, take literacy classes or receive mental health counseling and more.
Laura Hughes, executive director of the Ellis Center, says it has 11,000 contacts with youth in the drop-in center each year. "Because of our own opinions about sexuality, they are disenfranchised from navigating different services," she says.
There are plenty of statistics about homelessness and violence against LGBT youth on the center's website (ruthelliscenter.org), but Foote provides a testament to the difference a safe, nurturing place can make.
"Ruth gave me an opportunity to get on my feet," she says. "It gave me an opportunity to gain independence, a sense of awareness about the streets and how to find a job, keep a roof over my head, survival skills. I have my own apartment. It's what we've got to do to survive in the everyday world. People will open door to you but they will put you out eventually. Nothing is free."
Foote now studies social work at Wayne County Community College District, and works full time at the Ellis Center as a night counselor, monitoring residents, making sure they are in their own rooms, and intervening if someone is ill. She also works a few day shifts where the focus is more instructional.
"We focus on life skills, your manners, how to act in public, manage a house, bank accounts. We teach them how to cook, or take them out to eat and work on table manners. We encourage them to go to school."
That's a big transition for Foote.
Just a few years ago she was struggling to survive and now she's showing others the way out of their predicaments. For the socially secure, most of those skills are learned as a matter of course as you grow up. But for young people trying to navigate life while facing hostility for their sexuality, nothing is easy or taken for granted.
It's the kind of transition Ruth Ellis would be proud to see. Ellis made that kind of a difference to many during her life. Because of that, the Michigan Women's Historical Center celebrates that legacy Wednesday, Oct. 21, by inducting her into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. On Thursday, Ellis' legacy will take the spotlight with a 10th anniversary fundraiser for the center at the Scarab Club. For more information, call 313-252-1950.
The Ruth Ellis Center provides a place where any young person can feel as safe as Sykes — allowing them to be who they are without fear.
Any arguments about who is more oppressed — black, gay, Native American, etc. — are exercises in futility. There will be no justice until everyone enjoys equality. A step in that direction took place last Friday at the Affirmations center in Ferndale. Hughes, Jay Kaplan of the Michigan ACLU, and Walter Washington of Community Health Outreach Workers spoke at an LGBT-rights potluck and fundraiser for the U.S. Social Forum. The USSF, scheduled June 22-26, 2010, in Detroit, is a movement-building event bringing together progressive activists from across the country to develop solutions for economic, environmental and social justice issues. An offshoot of the World Social Forum, the first USSF in Atlanta drew more than 12,000 attendees. Organizers predict as many as 30,000 will come for the Detroit event. Find out more about USSF at ussf2010.org.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org