Interview with Wanda Sykes
Interview with Wanda Sykes
by Jason Marsden, Executive Director
MP: Hi Ms. Sykes its Jason Marsden with Matthew Shepard Foundation, how are you today?
WS: Hi, great and you?
MP: I’m doing well. Thanks for agreeing to talk to us
WS: Oh no problem, thank you.
MP: We do a series of interviews that we hope will be both inspirational and educational for LGBT young people and their allies. The idea started as demonstrating; we got feed back from young people that they sometimes feel like going into a certain career may put them at a disadvantage because of their sexual orientation, so we’ve interviewed entertainers, politicians, bankers, corporate people and then a lot more entertainers; we’ve been doing a lot of them lately. You’ve been a huge advocate for equality and have had the ability, I think, to cut through the way people see these issues because you have the advantage of humor to help focus the mind. So thanks very much for talking to us. You went through a sort of public coming out experience in the media, which is of course different from what a 15 year old in a rural high school might go through, but they may feel they’re experiencing some of the same things that you experienced doing it in the spotlight. Did you come away from that with any observations about this whole coming out business? How it works in this country and how people respond to it?
WS: I think the most difficult thing about coming out is just getting to that place where you’re comfortable with who you are and you’re sayin’ hey this is ok and just accepting yourself and not caring what other people think. Because if you don’t have that confidence in who you are then, if things don’t go the way you wish that they will, you know if people aren’t accepting then they can easily tear you down if you’re not prepared and comfortable with who you are. So I think that the major step is just being comfortable with who you are and after that, really its been very positive for me, I haven’t had any negative feed back, it hasn’t affected my career at all, if anything I think it has made me a better performer because I’m totally open and not really concerned about, oh ok if I say this than people may put two and two together and figure something out, so its very liberating. You don’t have anything to hide or whatever then really you’re taking away peoples’ weapons really because that’s the thing that I think people use to hurt you. I wish I had done it sooner but then I go, maybe I wasn’t ready, so it was just the right time and the right place for me and no regrets and I think with kids, teenagers coming out at a young age, I envy that, I think good for them because as soon as they get to that point they can really live their life and be their true self , so its courageous of them but at the same time I think they will find it very liberating.
MP: Did you come away with any observations about why it is that people are so interested in sexuality or other deeply personal attributes of celebrities in this culture? It’s certainly gotten a lot of peoples attention and it must have been an odd experience to have so many people so interested in it.
WS: That is the weird thing to me. I don’t know why people want to know. Unless you plan on having a relationship with them or if you wanna have sex with that person why would you care? I really don’t know what the fascination is but I think its just, I hope its just salacious and people, for some reason, feel like they have a right to know, especially when you’re a public person, when you’re a celebrity people feel like they should be able to know everything about you. As a comedian I don’t think they look at me as a sexual person but I can see where with actors it would be a little difficult for them because its part of their mystique, it gives them an easier time to change characters and people aren’t going oh we have a gay actor, their gay so I don’t know if I’m gunna buy this guy with this girl, its weird, I don’t think it’s fair; it’s only done with us, it seems, like they just accept everyone as straight and go along with it and then its oh their gay and make a big deal out of it. I know we have a ways to go, but it would be so cool when we get to that place where it just doesn’t matter, no body cares.
MP: So being openly lesbian, you’re a person of color, you’re a woman. How are these experiences similar and how do they differ in terms of working in the entertainment industry? Do different rules apply to people based on their gender or skin color? Have you perceived that and is it different than how you’re treated given your sexual orientation?
WS: I haven’t seen any change, really I think it is because I am out and this has opened me up to more opportunities career wise. So it has helped but then again I’m a comedian so I’m not waiting around for someone to write a part for me. I don’t have to wait for somebody else to create my next job; I have the ability to basically write my own ticket. Ok so there’s no TV shows, no movies going on fine, but I love going on stage and performing stand up so my situation is a little better than someone who’s strictly just an actor or actress. But it is funny though being out, now I get a little confused because before I’d go to a restaurant or some thing, especially not in one of our major cities or you know you’re on the road and you get bad service or you get the crappy table and I could attribute it to racism. I’d go, “oh ok so this is a black thing, I get it,” but now that happens I go, “Hm I wonder is this a gay thing or a black thing, which one? Where do I put this hate?” It used to be very easy when I could file my hate, it would all go underneath the black file but now I get confused I don’t know where to put it.
MP: You’ll have to give them a comment card so they can check off a box
WS: Yeah Yeah
MP: Your humor is very political, its very topical and there’s a lot of LGBT related issues that are going through the news and have many of us scratching our heads, why people think what they do given either the marriage debate and the trial that’s going on over proposition 8 or the recent moves to finally repeal don’t ask don’t tell. Do you feel now, a little more empowered to use material related to that? Are you interested in those issues in your comedy as you were before coming out or more so?
WS: Yeah very interested and as long as I can find the humor, that’s always my focus. Of course I want to continue to speak out on LGBT issues and to get the word out there and hopefully help move things along or at least get people talking. The key to me is it has to be funny. So yeah, I’m lookin’ for the good joke on don’t ask don’t tell, and [I] continue to speak for marriage equality but now instead of talking about the legal aspects of it I can draw from personal experience because I am married. The more I say my wife it helps with the conversation, at least get the dialog going on out there
MP: It feels like it changes peoples’ minds about their own relationships when they are able to use spousal terms like husband and wife, that all the sudden a light bulb goes on for them individually and they’re like, “yeah that’s what this relationship is to me!” How do you find the humor in [this]? A lot of these stories are sort of well meaning gay and lesbian people just trying to be treated fairly and some obstinate political body standing in their way; how do figure out how to find the humor in the middle of that situation?
WS: Wow, good question. Sometimes you can’t and when I don’t then its me just being angry and it’s not the right place for it, if I’m doing comedy, if I’m doing stand up shows, but yeah, I’m out there at the demonstrations and I’m part of Equality California so there are ways I can voice my opinion if I can’t find the humor in it, but I’m always trying to find the joke because I think that’s when it’s easier to get the message across, people are a bit more open to it.
MP: One final question before the robot phone machine tells us I have to go away. How do you feel about the difference between marriage and the domestic partnership that exists in California? You mentioned that a little bit, but how do you see the difference and how do you describe it to people if they ask you what is more meaningful about marriage as an institution?
WS: There are just so many more laws and rules that apply with marriage that do not come with domestic partnership and also to me it’s the commitment. I’m married, that’s my wife, I made a vow to stay together ’till death do us part and all that is very important to both of us. [With] domestic partnership, My wife is French and although she is a citizen now, if she wasn’t a citizen, domestic partnership would not get her the rights to have a green card. There are just so many things especially now that we have kids. if something happens to one of us, you can go to a lawyer and get a will and do all those things but all those things can be contested in a court of law, but when you’re married it’s kinda hard to fight that.
MP: I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to talk to us. We are so appreciative and good luck with everything you’re doing.
WS: Oh thank you. I appreciate all the work that you guys are doing too. Its just so important and thank you
MP: Thanks very much.
WS: You’re Welcome
MP: Ok take care
WS: You too, bye bye.