Today in Gay History: Oprah's Lesbian Evolution
By Andrew Belonsky
The Oprah Winfrey Show really knew how to do February sweeps. On this day in 1988, Oprah, then in her third season and very much mired in daytime muck, hosted Yolanda Retter Vargas and two other women who preached so-called “lesbian separatism,” an offshoot of a feminist movement that strikes against male patriarchy in all levels of society, including semiotics and semantics. Vargas, then Director of Women's Programs at LA’s Lesbian Center, and her friends were introduced as “women who hate men,” a label that made it all the easier for bigots to hate them and for LGBT activists to compare the women to conservatives.
“The mainstream mischaracterized separatists while liberal gays painted lesbian feminists as a flank of the Right,” writes Clark A. Pomerleau in Califia Women: Feminist Education Against Sexism, Classism, and Racism. It was not a high-point for lesbians, feminists or Oprah and was just one of the many sensationalized gay stories Oprah covered during this era. In addition to a comparatively progressive 1986 episode on homophobia, Ms. Winfrey aired “Women Who Turn to Lesbianism” (1988), “All The Family is Gay” (1991), “Straight Spouses and Gay Ex-Husbands” (1992) and “Lesbian and Gay Baby Boom” (1993).
But sensation isn’t always a bad thing. It was used to great effect when Oprah agreed to play Ellen’s therapist in the lesbian's eponymous sitcom's coming out episode. That same day that episode aired, April 30, 1997, Oprah hosted Ellen, already out in real life, and told her that she received piles of hate mail for her cross-promotional appearance. She was surprised, she said, but added, “I did it for you and I did it because I believe I should have done it… But at the time it was really shocking to me why [anyone] would write hate mail for that.” Some could argue the messages Oprah had previously sent fostered such animosity.
Ultimately Ellen’s appearance paid off for both women. Ellen’s show was canceled, yes, but she would go on to become Oprah’s heir apparent in the talk show realm, a move made possible by Oprah’s nod of approval. Oprah actually shared her magazine’s cover with Ellen in 2009, only the second time she’s shared the monthly spotlight. And of course we all remember when Oprah hosted newlyweds Ellen and Portia de Rossi in 2009, a clear indication that Oprah had gone from exploiting lesbians to embracing them. Episodes from that era included 2005’s “When I Knew I was Gay” and “Wives Who Confess They’re Gay,” a kinder approach to an old topic and an episode that won Oprah a GLAAD Award. And those were just a few of her many pro-LGBT installments.
Oprah has since become a vocal supporter for equality and LGBT civil rights off-camera, too, and in 2013 suggested that same-sex couples can actually help strengthen the institution of marriage. She never would have said that back in February of 1988. Or even in 1998.
It took Oprah years to evolve, but she did, and she brought millions of fans with along for the ride, perhaps changing American history in the process, and certainly her own.
WATCH Oprah's interview with Ellen below: