BREAKING: Oprah Still Isn’t a Lesbian

Remember when you were in 6th/7th grade and your best friend, who was a girl, hugged you really innocently and some stupid boy yelled, “HAHA EWW LESBIANNS! HAHAA!” That was pretty obnoxious and idiotic, right? Because everyone knows that it takes a hell of a lot more than a few hugs / hand-holding / kissing (yep!) to be an actual lesbian. Also, in this case the word lesbian was used as slur, which is always a pain in the ass.

For some reason, people seem to be unable to distinguish between very close friendships between women and lesbian relationships and it’s really annoying. Even as someone who fully believes that everyone is at least a teeny little bit gay, I’m confused by this generalization.

HEY LOOK Oprah and Gayle are very good examples of this PHENOMENON of two women loving each other but not being lesbians. When did the lesbian rumors start? Probably sometime in the late nineties, when Oprah started including Gayle in more episodes and events. I’m just guessing here. As far as I can recall, Oprah has very tactfully denied the rumors while promising that, were she a lesbian, she would certainly tell us about it.

I don’t know, I believe her. Like, if anyone seems ‘ok’ talking about their personal life as it relates to their public life, I think it’s Oprah. Maybe also Howard Stern. I don’t think Howard Stern would lie about those things. Some people just don’t seem to be super concerned with whether or not their honesty is accepted by the world at large, you know?

So why do people people still ask Oprah if she’s gay? It’s dumb, right? If a lesbian is close friends with a straight man, would we ask her if she was straight? Do people ask gay men with lady bff’s if they’re straight? Is this just another way to marginalize women, their relationships and their sense of self?

(Sidenote: On a related note, have any of these straight-girl friendships turned out to be, in truth, the piece of evidence that leads us towards the holy grail of lesbianism? When Jillian Michaels came out, everyone was delighted to conclude that she’d been dating her straight BFF Vanessa Marcil all this time, just like they suspected! But no. Jillian’s girlfriend was Heidi Rhoades, who you probably had never heard of.)

Here’s a video from an upcoming Barbara Walters Special in which Oprah is feeling a lot of feelings about this whole thing. You should watch it.

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See, the truth is that sometimes our relationships with our female friends are just as important — if not moreso — as our sexual/romantic relationships. The way Oprah describes feeling about Gayle is a way you might feel about your best friend, too:

“She is … the mother I never had. She is … the sister everybody would want. She is the friend that everybody deserves. I don’t know a better person. I don’t know a better person… it’s making me cry ’cause I’m thinking about how much — I probably have never told her that.”

Here’s the thing: Oprah and Gayle are actually demonstrating to us, in a very public, very unabashed way, how to have a really good relationship… with your friend. I don’t know much about Oprah and Gayle but it appears they’ve spent some time together in vehicles and in the wilderness for 20+ years. Although I imagine Oprah with all her moneys doesn’t need Gayle’s help to do the things we often hit up our best friends for — install her air conditioner, drive her to the shop to pick up her car, cut her hair — their friendship did begin with a favor (all these quotes are from a 2006 interview):

Oprah: The first time Gayle spent the night at my house was because there was a snowstorm and she couldn’t get home. She was a production assistant and I was the 6 o’clock anchor in Baltimore.

Gayle: Anchors and PA’s do not socialize—the newsroom hierarchy.

Oprah: But I said, “You can stay at my house.” The next day, we went to the mall.

Gayle: Remember Casual Corner? They had those two for $19.99 sales.

Oprah: I ended up buying two sweaters.

Gayle: I had to call my mother and say, “You know my friend Oprah? Guess what? She bought two sweaters!” I was into layaway back then, for one sweater.

Oprah clearly does rely on Gayle for nearly all of her emotional well being. She hits the nail on the head here talking about why their relationship is otherwise interpreted:

Oprah: I understand why people think we’re gay. There isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label it—how can you be this close without it being sexual? How else can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, admires you?

Gayle: Wants the best for you.

Oprah: Wants the best for you in every single situation of your life. Lifts you up. Supports you. Always! That’s an incredibly rare thing between even the closest of friends.

Yup. They’re just the bestest most specialest best friends of all time. Maybe you have one too? The girl you depend on for the little things (what shirt should i wear) and moderately sized things (can you help me move) and giant things (road trips!) and even bigger things (housing you after your breakup).

These days a lot of us are estranged from our families or, for one reason or another, don’t rely on family for the bulk of our emotional needs. Instead we turn to each other. Sex and the City was supposed to be about this phenomenon, and it kinda was, most of the time. Anyhow, these bonds between women are often the very thing which enables you to extract yourself from a bad relationship or a shitty job or a dead-end life.

The secret nobody tells you is that the primary thing you can get from a relationship that you can’t get from a best friend is sex and the secondary thing is exclusivity (if that’s your style). But, where would the patriarchy be if women realized that we could get all the emotional support and daily entertainment we needed from each other and therefore started seeing husbands as bonuses rather than needs? What if we made choices based on what our best friend, and not our romantic partner, needs or wants?

What if two women don’t need you, and it’s not because they’re sexually attracted to each other? What then?

Oprah: The truth is, no matter where I am, whether Stedman is there or not, Gayle’s in the other room. I mean, she’s always coming in and asking, “Whatcha doin’?”

Gayle: I really do marvel at this because if Stedman didn’t accept me, it would be very difficult for us to be friends.

Oprah: See, that would never be a question for me. If you don’t like my best friend, then you don’t like me. That’s not negotiable. Smoking is nonnegotiable. It’s just a deal breaker. Not liking my best friend—forget it! Or my dogs—you gots to go!

Right on. And besides, nobody would hide from their sexuality in these outfits now, would they?

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50 Comments

  1. I’ve had a similar thing with my male best friend, interestingly. We’re both queer, but people often think we’re dating. It’s super weird, because I’m genderqueer with a fairly masculine presentation — I look stereotypically gay. Not only that, but I’m open about my queerness.

  2. I believe her. I mean, if someone in that position is not comfortable enough to come out, then who is. And I can see that – on the other hand – she’s not comfortable with people thinking she’s lying.

    But then, what does it mean that she’s not gay? That she’s straight? Or asexual? Or no one’s business?

  3. Awesome article! But, may I play devil’s advocate here for a second? I realize that you can have a deep emotional relationship with another woman without either of you being gay – But what about asexual lesbian couples? How is that different? If it’s not about the sex and it’s not about the emotional support, then what is it about? What qualifies one for that “holy grail”, as you said?

    • i don’t know if that’s playing devil’s advocate so much as introducing a different element to the discussion (asexuality)?

      in any event, you can get all your emotional support from a relationship if you want to. we’re just saying that you don’t HAVE to be in a relationship to get emotional support from another person.

      also official duty & obligation?

      “Maybe that’s just what a relationship is. Constantly doing things you have absolutely no desire to do.” (Nate, Six Feet Under)

      you can create official duty/obligation with friends if you want to, as well.

      there is no hierarchy of human relationships. we are all beautiful special snowflakes.

  4. I’ve been subject to such speculation with a couple of friends in the past. I guess people just aren’t ready for a new kind of relationship, one that is everything but sexual.

    Hopefully people would get over their obsession in labelling things.

  5. If the news is that she isn’t a lesbian, then it’s not breaking, right?
    (this reminds me of an intelligent article Reise had written some weeks back. i kept it in the back of my mind at all time – thanks Reise!)

  6. Oprah and Gayle’s BFFdom makes for some really great-probs unintentional-feminist indoctrination.

    I’ve heard so many women say, “I hate other girls”/”Most of my friends are guys” like it’s something to be proud of. This definitely shakes things up. I hope people are influenced by these two. Because, really. Who wants to be Carrie and Samantha when you can be Gayle and Oprah?

  7. “If a lesbian is close friends with a straight man, would we ask her if she was straight?”

    I am one of these (seemingly mythical) lesbians who is close friends with a straight man; in fact, most of my close friends are straight men. My best friend and I have a very affectionate and emotionally intimate relationship, though there is absolutely nothing sexual between us. We have been close for going on two years and the fact that most people who know us also know that I am gay doesn’t seem to have stopped everybody from thinking that we are “together.” For me, some of my gay friends have questioned if I’m still “on the team,” while he has had at least one romantic relationship end badly because the girl was intimidated by the closeness of our relationship–even though she knew I was gay. Though Oprah is right, that there isn’t a word for such an intimate friendship between two women, it’s the same for cross-sex friendships in such a heteronormative culture. No one I’ve met so far can understand how a (straight) man and a (gay) woman can be so close without it being a sexual relationship. So, I hear ya, Oprah. Loud and clear.

    • Ding ding ding. I feel like once you eschew that ‘normal marriage stuff’ you’re opening yourself up to some curious glances from the general public which are taking this particular form.

      Mind you, that road trip stuff was pretty effin’ gay.

  8. The thing that people who call her gay seem to always forget is that Oprah OFTEN talks about very personal things about herself – her struggle with her weight, her abuse as a child etc – so why would she NOT talk about her lesbianism of it was true? Especially now, with gay rights having a definite “moment” with DADT, gay marriage, and gay bullying being such hot button issues recently. Oprah knows her power and influence. If she could come out and positively change how things are for gay people, she would do it in a second. But she’s NOT gay. It’s unfortunate really, because she could really make a difference if she was! ;)

  9. I believe her. I think people are too caught up on labeling others because if they don’t, then they dont know how to react or think of the person. So labelling them would be easier to how ‘they’ feel or ‘think’ about the ones being labelled. It confuses people and the mystery is just too much so narrow minded people have to label others for their own good. Good God, we’re almost in 2011, I think there should be better social studies crtiria in schools! Come on your damned if you are (gay) (Sucides) and damned if you aren’t! Whatever happened to best friends! Like beaches!..Sorry very sad movie but they were there for each other and I’m sure many other movies. Come on people a little more education for peace in this sad World of ours!

  10. all male mockery aside, these two are like a real-life thelma and louise. which is what you touched on in the “the secret nobody tells us..” paragraph.

    idk i still think something is up with stedman

  11. I have a super-straight female best friend like this. And I would seriously spend the rest of my life in a platonic, non-sexual relationship with her. Plus even though she knows I like girls, she doesn’t hold back from showing me affection, because we know where we stand. Actually quite a few of my straight female friends are like this.

    I like this article, because to be honest a lot of the time I’ve gotten more out of my platonic friendships than I have from my romantic life. Maybe this will change, but those female friendships will always be important to me. Oh you guys.. gotta love a bit of female solidarity <3

  12. It’s okay to wonder, “You seem to be really close, are you two romantically involved?” But Oprah has said no, and it’s believable, so those rumors should be turned into a celebration that people can have close relationships with other people than their romantic and/or sexual partner. Because there isn’t really a good understanding of that in this culture. We connect everything to sexuality, and a lot of the time, it is about sexuality, but not always. The Oprah/Gayle relationship is really uplifting and should inspire people to love their friends more, not just focusing on 1 person in the whole world to be your everything. Humans form strong bonds to other humans, that’s what we do. Whether you have romantic/sexual or simply platonic feelings towards a person, thats wonderful! LOVE for everybody.

  13. Psh, the only reason they’re asked this question is because our society can’t wrap its head around the idea of powerful, successful women who are without male counterparts. The notion of such a strong, emotional bond between two women is threatening to men, so they assume, “They MUST be knockin’ boots!”, because they can’t explain why these women have no need for them otherwise.

    In spite of insisting that I’m straight, I’m still asked at least once a month by my older sister if I’m gay, because I remain unapologetically single, and have no desire to have a boyfriend right now.

  14. It’s exactly how I feel about my best friend. I really don’t know how i’d be without her. She keeps me levelled, she calls me out of my bs, she’s seen me at my lowest and she’s stuck around, even when I moved to another continent she still comes to see me WHEREVER I am, she’s the most honest person I know, she’s kind, understanding, smart, funny, silly, there’s nothing romantic, sexual there, I can’t even imagine being sexual with her it’s weird. It’s love in its purest form.

  15. I have gotten a lot more out of my friendships than any relationship I have ever had.

    My best friend is a gay guy and I am a lesbian, we are extremely affectionate with one another and people always ALWAYS think that we are dating, it is so annoying! I just love him, and I think a big part of what makes our relationship work so well and how we are always so comfortable being affectionate with one another is because of the fact that we know neither one of us is sexually attracted to the other, instead we can just be, you know? Did that make any sense?

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  17. Romantic friendships FTW! I have a couple of friends like this with me, male and female, and I have received the “are you dating?” question (My response: I wish!). I hate how society sets boundaries on what you can call a friend/lover/partner/etc and doesn’t really let you decide for yourself. I build relationships with people on individual levels with differing boundaries of intimacy (physical and emotional) and those boundaries change over time. So what if they don’t fit the usual models? They work for *us* and that’s what matters.

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