Oprah Winfrey is one of the most famous, richest and powerful women in the world — she recently interviewed Matthew Sandusky, Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son and launched her own tea, Tevana, with Starbucks — and beloved by many. And yet even she isn’t free from having to defend her choices. Oprah is unmarried, although she has had a steady partner for 28 years. But because she has chosen to remain unmarried, some wonder — is she or isn’t she gay?
Here’s how the media handled a yacht cruise of the Virgin Islands Oprah took her BFF of 38 years, Gayle King, on this past March:
Not seen with Oprah and Gayle was the legendary talk show host’s partner of 28 years, Stedman Graham. The Oscar-nominated diva and her 59-year-old gal pal are practically inseparable, which has led to persistent gay rumours. “I am not lesbian. I am not even kind of lesbian,” The Butler star told Barbara Walters on ABC News in 2010.
And that’s how society treats people who chose to couple outside the one-size-fits-all marital box we’ve been led to believe is the only way to live — get married and live together. If you don’t chose that path, well, you must be gay. Think how tiring it must be say, “I’m not lesbian,” over and over again (as if being a lesbian was a bad thing). And think how tiring it must be to explain why — at age 60 — you still aren’t married!!!!
It’s what Susan Pease Gadoua, my co-author of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, was constantly asked until she — finally!!!! — wed at age 43. What’s wrong with you, everyone wondered. And it’s what the 52-year-old George Clooney has had to face until he — finally!!!! — got engaged a few months ago (never mind that he’s been married before).
But Oprah is smart enough to realize that marriage would change what she and Stedman have, and not necessarily for the better:
(H)e’s a traditional man and this is a very untraditional relationship. I think it’s acceptable as a relationship, but if I had the title ‘wife,’ hmmmm. I think there would be some other expectations of what a wife is and what a wife does. First of all you gotta come home sometimes.
Yep, being a “wife” comes with all sorts of expectations and restrictions, and that’s why couples have a “his” and “hers” marriage. Not to say that there aren’t expectations and restrictions for husbands; after all, we still expect men to be the provider even though there are more two-income families and bread-winning wives. But many women tend to lose their sense of identity in a marriage (aren’t we the ones who are often expected to change our last name?), and it’s clear from Oprah’s statement that “you gotta come home sometimes” she just isn’t willing to give up her freedom or identity that way. (That’s why in The New I Do, we acknowledge the fact that some people desire freedom while still wanting long-term commitment and companionship, and offer a marital model that provides both.)
But rather than see Oprah’s arrangement as “wrong” or “odd,” we should applaud the fact that she understands that being a “wife” would limit her ability to be the best Oprah she can be (and who knows how that would have impacted all that she’s created and given us?). She also values friendship, which often “delivers what love promises but fails to provide.” Most of all, she doesn’t look to her partner and lover to provide all her emotional needs; her BFF and all the experts she befriends and supports help her with that. Isn’t that a healthier way to approach a relationship than the soul-mate model, which puts way too many expectations and burdens on another person?
Oprah has become a success on her own terms, which may have been harder to do if she had to add “wife” to all her other titles. Isn’t it time people stop worrying about the fact that she’s unmarried? And isn’t it time all of us consider more deeply how being a “wife” or a “husband” would impact the best “you” you offer the world?