Gail ELIZABETH WYATT doesn't look the part.
With her fair complexion, silky hair and refined dress, she resembles the archetypal African American trophy wife of her generation. Indeed, her husband is an obstetrician-gynecologist, and they live in a grand home -- tennis court, swimming pool -- high above Beverly Hills. Yet even on his arm, and even when she "looked like a lady going to church" in a new, emerald silk dress, she has been mistaken for a prostitute.
How could anyone see that when looking at this woman?
Race alone, she says, and her pioneering research proves it.
"I did the first study on African American female sexuality," Wyatt says during an interview in her office at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, where she runs the sexual health program. An associate director of the UCLA AIDS Institute, she is also a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the medical school. The first black and female licensed psychologist in California, Wyatt, 59, earned her doctorate at UCLA, stayed for training as a sex therapist and never left.
"When I told my mother I wanted to become a sex therapist, she said, 'Honey, can't we just tell people you're a teacher?' " Wyatt recalls.
A scholar of sexual behavior, she studies factors that influence decisions, actions and responses, largely in relation to HIV. For most of her career, she has also investigated the consequences of slavery, rape, breeding -- the centuries when African American women couldn't say no -- and the resulting stereotypes of black females as oversexed and immoral.
Overcoming those stereotypes was the focus of her first book for a general audience, "Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives" (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), which remains in print. Her latest is "No More Clueless Sex: Ten Secrets to a Sex Life That Works for Both of You" (Wiley), which she co-wrote with her husband, Dr. Lewis Wyatt.
But she needs neither books nor federally funded, peer-reviewed, scientifically defensible studies to prove how sexual stereotypes influence behavior.
Ask about that green dress, the one she wrote about in "Stolen Women," the one with the Peter Pan collar and sash tie.
"It was made from material Lewis had brought home from Thailand just for me. I guess that's why I felt so special," she says. She remembers everything about that day 25 years ago, in that hotel outside Cleveland where they stayed while attending his sister's wedding.
As she waited alone in the lobby, two white guys walked out of the hotel bar. One said, "She must cost $100."
Nothing protected Wyatt from that insult -- not her wedding band, her doctorate or her very sheltered childhood.
Fourth- generation college, a granddaughter of a Methodist minister, a daughter of conservative educators, Gail Smith came of age in L.A.'s newly integrated Leimert Park, with suitable friends, membership in Jack and Jill (an exclusive group for cultured, middle-class black families), a cruise to Norway, deportment classes and a second trip to Europe, all before she graduated at 16 from Dorsey High School.
Her own sex education?
Books and pamphlets given to her by her mother, at a time when most parents said nothing.
For years, she and her sister Sandra performed with their father, Ulysses "Jeep" Smith, a jazz musician and high school band leader. The Smith Sisters also sang on the '50s "Mickey Mouse Club" television show, and recorded eight singles before rejecting a major label to finish college.
Gail followed Sandra to historically black Fisk University in Nashville at the height of the civil rights movement, pledged her mother's elite sorority and in her junior year met Lewis Wyatt. Two months after her graduation, she married the man who for nearly four decades has been her first and only husband.
Sounds like a black "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," but Wyatt is as comfortable with grandes dames as she is with homeless street women.
"You may see a small, little lady, but don't be fooled," says Dr. Eric Bing, also a behavioral science researcher and an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Charles R. Drew University medical school near Watts. He met her in 1987 during his residency at UCLA and has since collaborated with her on research projects, journal articles and international consulting.
As her thick curriculum vitae and stacks of press clippings show, Wyatt is best known for work regarding behavior and the HIV virus. Her most prominent work in this area, a landmark longitudinal study conducted between 1994 and 2000 for the National Institute of Mental Health, closely matched diverse women with HIV to those without it to determine how the virus affects actions and responses.