I have to admit, over the past 25 years, I’ve been a little obsessed with “Oprah.” Okay, maybe not just a little bit—maybe a lot more than that. To be honest, I have been a major fan of hers from the very beginning.
In 1986, when I saw her on the air for the first time, I connected with her immediately. I couldn’t believe that here, for the first time, here was a woman on television who resembled no one else I had ever seen on network TV. She talked about issues that clearly mattered to her. She showed her true emotions, was overweight—and she was black. Before this, each of these traits by itself might have spelled low ratings and quick cancellation for any TV personality. But not for Oprah—she was authentic.
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How come I identified so closely with Oprah Winfrey, especially since we have nothing in common? I’m a gay white Jewish male, now a therapist, who grew up in a lower-middle-class household. She and I didn’t share the same gender, religion, race or profession, yet I felt a kinship with her, an understanding.
At that point, little did I know that we two had a lot in common!
Show after show, she continued to mesmerize me. Enthralled, I watched her tell her audiences about topics that had been stubbornly ignored on broadcast TV—or if talked about at all, then not in the ways she did. I had long been a fan of Phil Donahue, but when it came to Oprah, I perceived something different in what she wanted to leave with her audiences. She confronted them on the real-life effects of bigotry, prejudice and homophobia.
I vividly recall one show she aired—on racism. She invited white supremacists to come on the show and talk about why the world would be better off without people of color and that “all they do is reproduce.” Walking through the audience, she turned to one of them defiantly—and yes, a bit reactively. She whisked by him in her flowing dress and said, “I am black and I haven’t reproduced anyone!”
Right there in my own living room, I stood up and cheered. How I envied her, being able to confront someone like that in a safe environment—and before a sympathetic audience!
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My obsession began. I began taping her show every day so that I wouldn’t miss it. Soon, I was impressed at how gay-friendly she was in her shows that dealt with coming out. I loved how, at the same time, she managed to seem down to earth like everybody else (including me).
The year before, in 1993, when I started my own private practice, straight and gay therapists warned me that if I outed myself I would fail—that I’d never be able to make a living as an openly gay therapist. Traditionally, psychiatrists and psychologists had always kept their sexual orientation to themselves, along with nearly everything else in their personal lives.