TV star Wendell James on sexuality, faith & fighting HIV/AIDS
by Stevie St. John
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
That question was posed to Wendell James by his “Hollywood wife” and Raising Whitley star Kym Whitley in the course of filming her series.
“I’m heterosexual; I’m black; I’m female; I’m fluffy. That’s my truth. What’s your truth?” Whitley asked during a televised heart-to-heart.
Part of James’ truth is that he’s what in show business you’d call “a personality.” The Ohio native’s bio touts him as having “too much style, personality and talent” to stay put in his small hometown. More than twenty years ago, he moved to California, where he later entered “the biz.” He’s done theater; he’s been executive producer of documentary Gang Girl; he’s hosted a radio show; and he’s now a cast member on “docu-series” Raising Whitley.
Part of James’ truth is that he’s a fifty-four-year-old black, gay man who started going to church around age ten and—beneath his quipping and his boisterousness—he still grapples with reconciling his Christian faith and his sexual orientation.
Even though James’ truth isn’t always an easy one for him, he lives it. Far from hiding in a closet, he speaks frankly about his life and his challenges. He wants others with the same internal struggles to know that they’re not alone.
And as he lives his truth, a generous spirit shines through as James works—sometimes in front of the camera, but more often behind the scenes—to support HIV/AIDS work and other causes that are important to him.
For thirty years, James has worked with adults who have developmental disabilities. He now works for an agency called Adult Educational Technologies, and among his duties is educating clients about HIV/AIDS and safer sex. He’s also the red carpet host for DIVAS Simply Singing!, an event produced by actress/activist Sheryl Lee Ralph’s DIVA Foundation [A&U, April 2008].
And in recognition of James’ success in supporting his community and living his truth, he’ll be honored at the inaugural Truth Awards on March 28 in Los Angeles. Conceived to recognize the accomplishments of black LGBTQ people, the Truth Awards are being produced by the DIVA Foundation in partnership with Better Brothers Los Angeles, an L.A. organization for black gay men. James will be presented with the Philanthropy Award.
A Lively Presence
James has a high voice, a friendly and exuberant manner and a flair for firing off one-liners. He dons some outfits you might call “loud,” and he’s been referred to as “zany.” That is to say, he has a touch (or two) of flamboyance about him. He’s quick to joke and laugh.
“Wendell has this fun, lively presence,” said Scott Hamilton, Project Coordinator for the Truth Awards.
Vallerie D. Wagner, chief operating officer of APLA Health & Wellness, noticed that lively presence, too. She met James when he was photographed for this story. The photo shoot took place at the Gleicher/Chen Health Center, an APLA Health & Wellness facility in south L.A., where clients (primarily gay and bisexual men of color and transgender people) go for medical care, including primary care as well as HIV-related services.
The shoot took two and a half hours. Wagner was at no risk of being bored, though—not with James around.
“He is amazing. We had a fantastic time. He’s definitely a comedian. He’s a funny guy. He’s a really sincere guy,” said Wagner, a lifelong “nerdy activist” with a “burning in my belly” to combat discrimination and injustice. A former JPL engineer, Wagner went on to a long career with nonprofits that work on LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues, and she’ll be honored alongside James and other honorees at this year’s Truth Awards.
After winning Wagner over right with his outgoing manner and clever one-liners, James secured her promise to check out Raising Whitley, which she’d never seen before. Wagner noted that “we’ve become a television-watching age,” which means that James’ role on the series gives him a platform for raising awareness about issues surrounding sexuality and HIV/AIDS. And she thinks his personality will help get the messages across.
“So much information can be imparted through the ability to make someone laugh. I think it will go a long way…[and] his willingness to be as open as he seems to be…will reach people exactly where they are,” she said.
A Generous Heart
James remembers the early days of HIV/AIDS, when so many lives were lost and his own mother told him not to hug her because she feared the disease. Even before it was a known and named illness, James saw AIDS taking a toll. He frequented nightclubs where he started to notice formerly healthy people getting alarmingly skinny, with their faces appearing sunken in. Many of those friends were lost to the ravages of the epidemic’s early days.
Now, James plays a role in helping others protect themselves against HIV infection. In his work with developmentally disabled (or “DD”) adults, he tailors his materials to fit the audience. He’s very visual and graphic in order to explain the material.
James knows that many look down on his clients for their behaviors and for their appearances. He wishes they were more accepted in society. And though some express surprise that they need to be educated about sexual matters, to James it is straightforward: Adults with developmental disabilities are people. They are humans with human lives and problems, and they need the information that not a lot of educators offer them.
“People often think because you are DD you don’t have babies, sex, etc., but I like to remind people they are DD second and human first. Everybody can learn; it’s just at a different level. I have seen [clients make] better choices based on safer sex training,” James said.
He’s also seen HIV’s effects on the black community, which is disproportionately affected. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blacks account for forty-four percent of new infections in the U.S.—far out of step with the percentage of the population for which they account (twelve percent). Young gay and bisexual black men are particularly at risk.
“As black folks, because of homophobia, a lot of black men—married—are on the ‘down low,’ having unprotected sex thus infecting their wives and/or girlfriends,” he said. “We are still, I feel, in denial and all churches, I think, should have outreach programs to address the issues.”
Some churches (especially large “megachurches”) have programs, he said, but many don’t—and many don’t talk openly about homosexuality except for preachers who rail against it from the pulpit.
“We need a lot more churches to have programs,” James said. “I think everybody should start some type of program.”
And James decries that there isn’t more attention, more funding, more support and outreach, for HIV/AIDS-related causes in the black community. That’s why he’s passionate about his role as red carpet host for DIVAS Simply Singing!, a concert benefit that supports the DIVA Foundation’s HIV/AIDS work.
Hamilton said that James is adept at getting artists, performers and personalities to talk not just about their outfits but about causes they believe in and why they’re devoted to the fight against HIV and AIDS. (James previously used his interview skills on a radio show called “Talking with Wendell” as well.)
“Wendell is this silent giver in the community that no one is aware of,” Hamilton said. It’s often work done “silently” and “behind the scenes” with no thought of being publicly thanked or affirmed. James, Hamilton said, is “genuine” and sincere in his charitable efforts.
“Out of all his crazy antics…the real Wendell is really about supporting the community,” Hamilton said.
Angeles area a social outlet. Members gather for happy hours, hikes, and cultural events.
“We wanted guys to feel a bit more comfortable about their sexuality,” said Vincent Holmes, one of the organization’s founders. Holmes said the group has been a “great success” in building community and establishing a sense of camaraderie.
Better Brothers isn’t an HIV/AIDS organization, Holmes said, but organizers are cognizant of the way issues overlap. By building a community where black LGBT people affirm one another, and where stigma surrounding being black and gay can hopefully be chipped away, they hope they can reduce risk factors for HIV/AIDS.
For James himself, his identity as a black man—and specifically as a Christian in black churches—has played a role in his struggles. He’s frank about the fact that he still grapples with his overlapping identities. James recalls preachers talking about homosexuality and giving the impression it was “the biggest sin of all the sins.”
James knew he was gay at age fifteen—though he once married a woman, believing it was what God wanted. He “was always comfortable with me,” he said, but “my struggle is my flesh desire [men] and church teachings; [it’s not of God].”
Because of that, James said, he self-sabotages potential relationships, though he’d like to be in one.“I think psychologically, I push guys away,” he said. “Whenever I talk about it, I normally get emotional about my struggle.”
It Takes a (TV) Village
James’ internal turbulence sometimes come as a surprise to those who know him by his personable, bubbly nature and good humor.
“I appear to have it all together,” James said. “I appear to be tough as nails…so then people are surprised….They think I don’t have a care in the world.”
Even close friend Kym Whitley didn’t realize how difficult it was for him—until his story was showcased on her TV series.
Raising Whitley is a “docu-series” that premiered in 2013 and follows the story of Whitley raising a child. As a baby, Joshua was left at the hospital by a young woman whom Whitley had volunteered to mentor. Whitley decided to take in the baby and raise Joshua with the help of her tight-knit circle of friends, dubbed “The Village.” And among her villagers is James, who as her “Hollywood husband” pitches in (for example) to fix things that break around Whitley’s house, where her friends often drop by for a glass of wine and a chat.
Though the stories are real, James said, the show does have writers who identify stoires and put them in order for the show. James was casually chatting with one of the writers—not pitching—when he mentioned his experiences with homophobia in churches and a struggle with self-acceptance. The story made its way to network head honcho Oprah herself, who thought “that is a story…that needs to be told,” James said. “So I have to give kudos to Oprah and OWN,” he said, for not shying away from the topic.
And neither did James, who on Raising Whitley bore his soul in a way he had not done in decades. When they filmed a conversation between James and Whitley, she was laughing and joking until “I guess she saw the tears,” he said. “What you see on that show is Kym’s true reaction.”
“I hate that you have pain with that,” she told him. “You walk so strong in everything else.”
Despite the sensitivity of the subject, James is glad he shared his story.
“I thank Oprah for allowing me to tell my story that is not talked about a lot in our community,” James said. “Yes, I cried telling it because doing the show is the first time in forty years I have ever told anyone, but now I’m glad I did. And sometimes I may still tear up talking about it, but it gets easier, and it’s helped people.”
The people James is referring to are viewers who responded with e-mails and long letters.
“I heard from fans, especially some men who are in the church, saying they struggle, too, and thanked me for being so brave,” he said. “Other shows I hope should take our lead. While they show gay couples/folks on TV, they do not talk much about men or women who struggle with their sexuality, or you see very little about AIDS/HIV….
“Yes, I still struggle to this day, and I do hope one day I can better embrace myself in this area. However, I’m not looking for sympathy or woe is me. I’m doing fine. We all have struggles of some kind, and now people can see a person can appear well put together, self-assured, etc., and still have struggles.”
And he wants others facing similar struggles to know they can find support.
What’s your truth?
In a video clip posted on the Raising Whitley website, James recalls how he had a hard time candidly answering Whitley’s question. He tells his story of facing stigma, of marrying a woman and then realizing he wasn’t living as his authentic self. And he encourages others to seek out support online if they, too, are grappling with their truth.
“I wanted to talk to you…about my ongoing struggle, growing up in the Baptist church, dealing with my homosexuality and my religion. My ‘Hollywood wife’ Kym Whitley asked me one time…‘Wendell, what is your truth?’…I had a hard time saying, ‘My truth is, Kym, is I’m a gay man.’ And it’s because of my doctrine.
“I struggle and I say to friends all the time that I would like to be in a relationship with a man. But what happens is, I self-sabotage….Because I think I’m going to hell in a hand-basket….I sabotage relationships by finding something wrong with the men and pushing them away. I am taught that that is the flesh wanting that relationship that that’s not pleasing to God….
“Back in my day, there was no Internet. But now, if you are going through this same struggle…you can Google, you can go to outreach programs. There are some churches out there that do have outreach programs, and there are some churches that have gay resources. The bottom line is, you don’t have to go through this alone.”
For more information about the Truth Awards, go to www.truthawards.eventbrite.com.
Special thanks to APLA (www.apla.org).
Post-production/Retouching by Eve Harlowe: www.EveHarlowe.com.
Stevie St. John is a freelance writer and a former board member of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA-LA). Her byline has appeared in many LGBT publications.