Is Oprah Queer?

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? Is Oprah queer?

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 there that makes Oprah queer? 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.

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Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.