How Queer is Oprah?

While flipping through the latest issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, I had what I’ve come to think of as an “O double-take.” That happens when the magazine comes up with an article that complicates stereotypical women’s magazine offerings–such as  “Why Women Are Leaving Men for Other Women” or “Comedian Carol Leifer’s Midlife Surprise” (she fell in love with a woman, too). Am I really seeing this, and am I seeing it here?

My latest O double-take was set off by the article “The One” by Allison Cooper–about her “falling in love with a transgender man.” I checked the front cover (see right). Yes, this was O, featuring an unexceptional women’s mag theme: “Real Love: Are You with Your Soul Mate?” There was no other exclamatory headline to tip off readers–no “Ciswoman Falls for a Trans Man!” Nothing to hint that queer content would be folded in with the typically heterosexual/gender-normative fare.

I assumed that author Cooper would bend over backward to make the case that she and the man she loves are just like everyone else, that she would assume the bland, homogenizing tone of assimilationists everywhere. But, in fact, she’s quite open about how the very concept of “normal” can limit individual freedom:

Normal has never been too kind to women, to children, or people of color, people mired in poverty, anyone different in any way. Normal is good for no one, really. It is a lie we all decide to believe–after even the most cursory look, no one is actually normal; it is a plastic bag we wrap around our own heads.

For many readers of O, I’m guessing, this romantic tale laced with friendly instructional tidbits will be challenging. (Sample teaching moment: “If the only true definition of manliness is ‘one who possesses a working penis,’ that poses an interesting dilemma for the guy who’s suffered, say, an unfortunate lamb shearing accident.”)  But there’s nothing in the presentation that sensationalizes or demonizes. If anything, it’s a bit overly sentimental for my taste, although that’s not a bad rhetorical strategy for the author’s purposes.

I’m not a regular viewer of Oprah’s TV show, but my sense is that when gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender issues are taken up, the titillation factor is high. Recall the frenzy surrounding Oprah’s interview with “pregnant man” Thomas Beattie. In episodes such as this, audience reactions range from supportive to outright hostile, and the tension between these reactions is a crucial part of the show.

In the magazine, though, the presentation of queer issues is more uniformly positive, sheltered beneath the O motto “Live Your Best Life.” If, as in the case of Cooper’s essay, the author tells you in her first sentence, “This is a love story,” there’s no one to stand up and say, “Oh no it’s not!” or “That’s wrong!” Since the piece falls within a section of the magazine called “The Way We Love Now,” the reader is implicitly invited to see their relationship as just another square in the crazy quilt of diversity.

My O double-takes often include Oprah herself. How can this 50-something woman so successfully have eluded traditional femininity, yet reign over an empire that largely revolves around domesticity and bourgeois culture? Isn’t there something more than a bit queer about Oprah herself? I’m not saying I think she’s gay (although I wouldn’t be the first to do so)–just as Cooper and her fiancé aren’t gay–instead, what’s clear is that she falls outside the boundaries of normal ideas about gender and sexuality.

As a non-trans woman, I mostly read magazines like O from a privileged position. The women represented in these mags are more often like me than not. At the same time, as a queer person/lesbian, I’m used to not seeing those aspects of myself there. So when queerness comes into the mainstream, as it does with surprising frequency and without apparent controversy in the pages of O, I take notice. Although I’m skeptical about whether a publication and a personality so entrenched in marketing and consumerism can contribute to genuine social change, I give O credit for expanding the audience for the discussion of queer issues. It made me look more than once. Maybe it can get people who might not otherwise see such things at all to think twice.


  1. Claire Kaplan says:

    Audrey, well stated! As usual, you are articulate and right on.

  2. I too find myself a “critical fan” or perhaps a “resistant fan” of the O magazine.
    Thanks for this thoughtful post on how the magazine troubles norms surrounding gender/sexuality at the same time as it is complicit with a vision “that largely revolves around domesticity and bourgeois culture.”
    I like that you give the mag credit for expanding consideration/discussion of issues not normally tackled in mainstream glossies in a sympathetic manner (ie queerness). It’s certainly not Ms, but it’s far better than the “get your power from your beauty and multiple orgasms” tone of Cosmo and the like.

  3. This article makes me WANT to subscribe to O magazine. Most women I know couldn’t care less about celebrity fashion and hairstyles. We care more about learning to express our feminine power and sexuality. If you believe you fall in love with a soul mate, why couldn’t that soul mate be the same gender? Maybe that’s just a bunch of BS about making babies. We have a choice now, and I am very happy to know that Oprah is presenting this position too.

  4. Although the use of the term “normal” initially receives dismissive treatment, the
    writer later applies that very word to an analysis of Oprah’s orientation.

  5. We don’t like the word “queer.” It is a Queer word meaning strangly different. Srangegly different is non inclusive. Different is thus not the same; without that strangely element. Normal is non existent except in the mathamatical sense. Normal can only be demonstated by mathematical formulations and statistics. It can not be used in the sense that we all are different and yet the same.

  6. I like this take on mainstream magazines—I think O and Ladies Home Journal are both pretty underrated. Well-written stories. It’s about time these issues were discussed openly by an informed public, and O is a great way to reach women who might not be reading general interest magazines or Ms..

  7. A. Rossie says:

    I think it’s about time someone starting queering Oprah! For someone with so much power–social, economic, and political (re: the 2008 presidential elections)–there is something subtle about Oprah, which allows her to appeal to mainstream audiences while subverting stereotypical femininity. I think a further critique of the cultural work her brand (the magazine, her talk show, her book club, etc.), empire, and status as a media mogul do would be insightful (and perhaps something that cannot be undertaken until AFTER her show goes off the air and we suddenly see a void where Oprah once was?!)…

  8. This article was a little gross to me.

    First of all, let me say that I love it that a magazine as mainstream as O tackles these issues that, though part of our society, are largely unspoken. That’s groundbreaking, fantastic and all that.

    Secondly, let me say, I don’t have a problem with transgendered people. Hey, if someone doesn’t like the hair color, eye color, or nose shape they’re born with, it’s perfectly acceptable, and often culturally lauded to change those. If someone doesn’t feel right about their gender, yes, people should be allowed the option of changing this as well.

    However, to get to the off putting part of this article—to me,the article is a little paradoxical. Here is this author, writing about her transgendered lover as though she should win an award, and the love she found is special simply because it’s outside the box she previously gave herself. But at the same time, it almost verges on whininess, because the author finds it so awful that everyone else in society asks so many questions…because it falls outside their realm of experience too.

    Look, either stop going out of your way to make sure everyone around you knows how different your love is, and how bold you are for doing the loving,because people WILL ask questions, or just be quiet about it, because then they won’t.

    Ultimately, I find it gross because it comes across, to me at least, that the love itself isn’t the special thing worth writing a rhapsodizing mag article about, but the socially shocking, boundary pushing aspect of her partner is.

  9. How can this 50-something woman so successfully have eluded traditional femininity, yet reign over an empire that largely revolves around domesticity and bourgeois culture?

    When she originally started her show, back in the day, the TV station she worked for would not produce it. I don’t know if it was racism or sexism or a belief that the show would fail and they didn’t want to lose money, or what. So she had to create her own production company (Harpo). Therefore, she owned every last bit of the show: the concept, the name, copyright on all the episodes, the distribution rights, and the ad revenue.

    Oprah’s as rich as Croesus because she never had to share a dime from her show with anyone else. Her drive and initiative to do the show trumped a very, very bad decision by the TV station, and she’s a true feminist inspiration.

  10. She is kind of commanding in presence, but I don’t think that she is a lesbian. She’s just been through some stuff in her life and she’s tough as nails but has a big heart. She’s got a big personality, and you have to have a bit of an ego to be able to do that kind of a job.

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