The Long Goodbye: Oprah, Gayle, and Stedman. Oh My?

Oprah and GayleLast week, ABC aired Barbara Walter's annual Most Fascinating Person(s) special (really? The cast of Jersey Shore made the list?), and one of those persons was Oprah.  Walters devoted an hour to Winfey to commemorate her 25th season and also conduct a retrospective on her life.  Many things were discussed, but media attention has turned to Oprah's self-created family: Stedman and Gayle.


Yes, as the mainstream media overwhelmingly reported, Oprah cried when talking about Gayle. So what? I cry during every single sappy moment that's been manufactured by Hollywood (qualifier: that I choose to watch). And I cry when I really think about the people I'm closest to, and what they mean to me.

Oprah spoke movingly and refreshingly about her interpersonal relationships.  Anyone who has ever had the gift of a long-term, intimate, supportive and platonic relationship with a member of the same sex will relate to the way she described her friendship with Gayle.

But of course…Barbara has to bring up the gay rumor.  It annoys me to no end that Oprah still has to address this, but I've always appreciated the way she's handled it: directly and authentically. Barbara asks if she wants to address it…AGAIN.

I have said we are not gay enough times. I'm not even kind of lesbian. The reason it irritates me is because someone thinks I'm lying. Why would [you] want to hide it? That's not the way I run my life." 

For what it's worth, I believe her. I think most people do and furthermore...I don't think many are wondering about it.   And yet I'm almost sure if she refused to answer or blew off the question, headlines would ask, "Is Oprah Hiding Something?"  So why does the lesbian storyline persist?  It appears to be a rumor kept alive solely to benefit the "news-tainment" industry.  Just a cursory review of the special's press coverage demonstrates the dominance headlines like, "Oprah denies being a lesbian" played in the media.  Gossip sites and Saturday Night Live got in on the action, too.  On December 11th's Weekend Update segment, anchor Seth Meyers begins:

In an interview this week with Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey denies being a lesbian. Said Walters, 'I haven't asked you a question yet.

Big laughs.

Even if many in the audience realized it was a joke and not true, taken out of context it could be misleading and intentionally keeps the rumor exploit it for a cheap, lazy joke.

Though it has to irritate them, every once in a while Oprah and Gayle have fun with it.  Earlier in the fall they traveled to Yosemite National Park to camp, and aired the program over two parts.  I giggled during a segment when they were getting ready to turn in for the night.  Gayle, climbing into the camper with Oprah right behind her says, "Let's just add to that lesbian rumor!" Oprah starts laughing and retorts, "Lesbian rumors! Come on in baby!"

Honestly, is it too difficult to believe that a deeply intimate relationship between two women can exist without it being sexual?

Talk during the ABC special turned to the other personally significant relationship in Oprah's life—one that has been equally scrutinized in the press for its break from conventional norms.  Barbara told Oprah that, "Everybody thinks it's over with you and Stedman." Oprah looks genuinely shocked and says so. "Is he still the man in your life?" Babs prods. "Yes!" Oprah responds. "The love, the lover, the man, the partner, the mate," and then goes on to say that both she and Stedman are glad they never married, believing that marriage comes with too many expectations, and that the relationship probably wouldn't have survived it.  She said they stopped appearing together frequently, because every time they went out, the media created a negative story around it.

Regarding her decision not to have children, there's an interesting moment between her and Walters. First, there are clips from an interview Walters conducted with Winfrey in 1988 that precede the discussion. In it Barbara asks Oprah if she foresees marriage and children with Stedman. Oprah says, sure, that would be nice but doesn't take it much farther. Back to present day, Oprah says that it was Barbara who planted that seed. Barbara looks slightly embarrassed and says, (paraphrasing)…hey, I love my daughter…best thing I ever did, but it ain't easy. My daughter resented my work and my travel, so if you ever feel regret…call me. I'll tell you some stories.

Without missing a beat, Oprah responds, "I could not have lived this life as intensely as I wanted with children, so I have no regrets about that. None." It's refreshing to see a woman with her reach say with such conviction and sincerity: I did not get married. I did not have children. And I still feel whole.

by Jennifer Tress
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12 Comments Have Been Posted

"It’s refreshing to see a

"It’s refreshing to see a woman with her reach say with such conviction and sincerity: I did not get married. I did not have children. And I still feel whole."

I agree.

The lesbian rumors irritate me even though I'm not a fan of Oprah (don't get me wrong, I admire many things about her, such as the part I quoted at the beginning of my comment. I just don't watch the show or read the magazine or any of that). It's frustrating that so many people seem to think that there's no way women could actually enjoy spending time and bond with other women unless it's sexual.

Being a woman you're damned

Being a woman you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. The same rumors of a relationship would spread around if her closest friend were male.

I love the fact that Oprah is

I love the fact that Oprah is unapologetic about choosing the satisfaction of career and activism over motherhood. But it's rarely mentioned that Oprah has, in fact, been a mother. She gave birth to a son at age 14--he died when he was only a couple weeks old. I wonder how/whether that experience affected her decision not to have any children later in life.

At any rate, I think Barbara Walters was a bit disingenous to be all "oh, let me advise you about motherhood and your choice not to have children" when she knows that Oprah had a baby as a teen and is actually childless both by circumstance <em> and </em> by choice. It's a strange omission on both their parts.

So interesting...

Paige and Becky, thanks so much for the comments. Becky, thanks so much for bringing that fact into the discussion - I hadn't realized that.

"Honestly, is it too

"Honestly, is it too difficult to believe that a deeply intimate relationship between two women can exist without it being sexual?"

Why do people assume a lesbian relationship has to be sexual? Take out the sex and they can't be lesbians, right? I think one could make a case for this. Certainly in the mainstream it's easy to do. I have no doubt Oprah can and maybe she does. Historically though, there's enough knowledge of non-sexual lesbian partners to make that a true aspect of lesbian culture. I don't think mainstream media knows this or cares about that complexity. But maybe? Their coverage of it *is* only interesting to me on a mainstream pop-culture analysis level. But as a lesbian, I find it lacking.

Why do people doubt when she says she's not a lesbian? Because people deceive all the time. Because some people want their private lives to remain private and so deception sometimes makes sense. Because her saying that she stopped having public appearances with Stedman because the media created a negative story around it each time it happened might be true. Or it might sound resoundingly false because she's okay with that happening when she steps out again and again with Gayle. There are so many examples of these sorts of small things that seem or sound inauthentic to me.

Here's the deal. I don't know if I believe Oprah. I don't think it's mean of me to speculate with my friends and family. I also don't think I'm a dumb ass for doing so. I could pick this apart here and whatnot but obviously it's all speculation on my part. I know that. And the people I have conversations with know that.

"Or it might sound

"Or it might sound resoundingly false because she's okay with that happening when she steps out again and again with Gayle."

But Oprah isn't the only player here. Perhaps Gayle is okay with it and Stedman isn't and Oprah is respectful enough of them that she has allowed each to make the choice they are most comfortable with and then stand behind them.

And if my comment sounding

And if my comment sounding bitchy in any way, I didn't mean it to. I just think there's plenty of room for discussion of, using Oprah's words, "kind of lesbians". I wonder what that means to Oprah? I wonder why she used that phrase. I wonder why she shook her head no when talking about her relationship with Stedman in that interview. I wonder about things...

No worries

Hey Amy, no worries. I know there are some people who speculate and I don't think it's mean at all. I just think the media isn't speculating, (cynic alert!); rather I think machine is just trying to increase online traffic...

You know, I felt a twinge when she said, "kind of a lesbian," and I'm glad you brought that up. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective.


I'm actually surprised, in our crazed pro-natalist culture, that we don't hear more about Oprah's childfree status. She certainly doesn't get the flak for it that some celebs do (think Jen Aniston... not exactly the same type of celeb but a famous woman nonetheless), and I wonder if it isn't tied to her non-married status. Then again, I sort of thought she and Stedman had broken up too, so shows you what I know!

so true...

I wonder if it's because, unlike Jennifer Aniston, popular culture has never perceived Oprah as "sexy" or even particularly feminine. She's a very successful career woman, she's black, she's overweight, she's everything that our racist, size-ist, patriarchial culture finds unattractive, so maybe that got her some level of exemption from the "why can't you find a man and have a baby?" expectations that society heaps on women it perceives as "hot."

Brava Oprah!

I think it's wonderful to have a woman very much in the public eye who has created a family that doesn't quite fit the 2.5 kids, husband, and white picket fence model. I have more than a few friends who have created similar atypical family models and are perfectly happy, well rounded, productive members of society. Thanks for keeping it real, Oprah.

Perhaps another reason she

Perhaps another reason she isn't criticized for being childless is because she presents herself as a sort of mother figure for the world?

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