In the August 2006 issue of O magazine, Oprah Winfrey attempted to put to rest longstanding rumors that she is a lesbian. In a candid interview, Winfrey and best friend Gayle King straightforwardly addressed the gossip about their supposed lesbian relationship, stating that if they were gay they would have no problem with coming out about it. King says, “The truth is, if we were gay, we would so tell you, because there’s nothing wrong with being gay.” Winfrey agrees: “People think I’d be so ashamed of being gay that I wouldn’t admit it? Oh, please.”
Their denial was splashed all across the media with headlines ranging from “Oprah: I’m Not a Lesbian” to “Oprah Is So Not Into Chicks,” but the interview with Winfrey and King was more than just another instance of a straight celebrity insisting on her heterosexuality. It revealed that being a lesbian is no longer the stigma that it was before Ellen DeGeneres came out on the cover of Time in 1997, while simultaneously showing that women’s sexuality remains a highly charged issue that is inextricably linked with power and inequality. A celebrity’s decision to come out often involves much agonizing over whether it will negatively affect their career, their box-office draw, their reputation and their fans.
So the fact that Winfrey and King insist that being gay is not a big deal represents a milestone in celebrities’ engagements with homosexuality—at least for women. Addressing gay rumors continues to be more problematic for gay men, as Lance Bass’ recent coming-out shows; he openly admitted his fears that coming out would negatively impact the success of the band ‘N Sync.
Though coming out for female celebrities is less difficult than it is for men—and in some cases female celebrities play the bisexual card to generate media interest in them as sex symbols—the ways that the media has pressured Winfrey to “come out” speaks volumes about society’s understanding of women in the world today.
In the O magazine interview, Winfrey states, “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?”
Winfrey’s description of her friendship with King sounds, to those of us living in the 21st century, suspiciously like a love relationship. But that does not mean that women have never been able to develop close, nonsexual relationships with their female friends. Up until the sexual revolution of the 20th-century that granted women the freedom to be openly sexual beings, women often had particularly close relationships with their female friends.
Historian Lillian Faderman examined these “romantic friendships” in her groundbreaking book, Surpassing the Love of Men, arguing that “These romantic friendships were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital.” In addition, society did not find these relationships to be threatening to the social order—something that has clearly changed over the course of the last century.