By now we’ve all watched (or read about) Oprah Winfrey break down into tears when Barbara Walters asked her to describe her friendship with Gayle King in last night’s one-hour interview on ABC. After commanding an off-camera minion to bring her a tissue — seriously, why aren’t those things within arms reach during all Walters interviews? — Oprah explained for the one millionth time that she and Gayle are not romantically involved. “I’m not a lesbian,” Oprah said curtly. “I’m not even kind of a lesbian.”
And then she voiced the reason behind her frustration: “[It] irritates me is because it means that somebody must think I’m lying. That’s number one. Number two, why would you want to hide it? That is not the way I run my life.”
It has boggled my mind for ages that people insist that Oprah is gay. Here is a woman whose sole purpose seems to be empowering people to live their best, most authentic lives; a woman who interviewed Ellen and Portia DeGeneres and told Ellen that she would have never reached her full potential if she had stayed in the closet.
It’s not just tabloids that have circulated the rumors about Oprah’s sexuality; speculation has been persistent from every corner of the lesbian community. And while she’s the most famous of the women around whom the gay whispers circulate, she’s certainly not the only female celebrity to come under constant sapphic scrutiny. Others include Kristen Stewart, Ellen Page and any woman who has even hinted at kissing another woman on screen or on stage in her whole entire life.
I’ve been watching and thinking about this phenomenon for years and there are only three reasons I can think of that our community wants to force women to “admit” that they’re gay. The first is simple: How freaking fantastic would it be if Oprah Winfrey — leader of the Free World, as my friend Rin likes to say — were a lesbian? You want visibility? You want a leader in the fight for equality? You want someone to change the entire shape of the gay rights movement around the globe? By Harpo, you’d have all of those things if Oprah was queer. And on a smaller scale, how great would it be if [insert name of female celebrity] was queer? Because visibility is good. It matters. We preach it. We believe it. It would change things.
The second reason is pretty simple, and Stuff Lesbians Like says it best: If famous women are lesbians, we could totally score with them! Never mind that that they’re “hot, rich, and famous and therefore we still have zero chance with them.” I hate to have to be the one to tell you this, but if Kristen Stewart really was a lesbian, you still wouldn’t be hooking up with her.
The third reason, I think, is because a lot of people have a hard time separating fact from fiction. If you’re watching a lesbian couple on-screen and they have the kind of spark and chemistry that makes you swoon, the part of your brain that still believes in Santa Claus goes, “… and what if their love was true and real?! What if it wasn’t just the characters that were in love, but the actors who played them?! You can’t fake that kind of spark!” And then you see those actors in interviews or on the red carpet hugging and laughing and touching each other’s arms, and it’s a done deal in your mind. It’s not just lesbians that do that it, though; you can find shipping videos on YouTube of the actors that play every single TV couple — regardless of orientation. (Which I guess, in its own way, is a kind of equality.)
So there you go: some valid explanations about why we have a hard time letting go of our favorite lesbian rumors. And now here’s the hard truth: We have got to stop that crap. For starters because another person’s sexuality is — to be frank — none of our beeswax. Yes, if all the closeted people in the world climbed up onto chairs and jumped off at the same time, the earth would bounce out of orbit. And yes, before we all spiraled into the sun and burned alive, the realization of the vastness of the gayness would change things in terms of equality. But sexuality is not collective. It’s not up to us to decide who is gay, and how and when they should come out, and what they should do with their lives once they do come out. Coming out is one of the most personal, complicated things a person will ever have to do. And it’s compounded by a billion when someone is famous.
Our celebrity-soaked culture has blurred the lines between what belongs to someone else and what belongs to us. Celebrities don’t owe us anything. They don’t owe us glimpses into their kitchens, interviews when they arrive at the airport, photographs of their kids, stories about their spouses. It’s not our right to know the gender of the people they’re attracted to either.
If celebrities tell us they’re not gay, we have to accept that. If they really are gay, or are coming to terms with being gay, pushing and shouting and poking and prodding isn’t going to change anything. When you were working out your own sexuality, would you have been more likely to come out if everyone around you was spreading gossip and questioning you every single day? And if celebrities are really not gay, then they are really not gay. Who are we to call them liars?
Watching Oprah’s interview last night made me sad, not because she was crying — if the angels cried every time Oprah cried, the world would be flooded before her farewell season is over — but because I was reminded of a line from The American President. In this context, it’d sound just like this: The gay community is so thirsty for visibility they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
We have got to stop drinking the sand. We’re not helping anyone. Of course we’re thirsty for visibility. And change will come. We’ve just got to keep digging.