Oprah Examines the Coming Out Process for Married Women

by Suzanne Corson, October 3, 2006

Oprah Winfrey received an email from a woman, married to a man for twenty-five years, who confessed to having a lesbian affair which lasted nearly three years. She explained that she loved her husband but was not in love with him and said she was bitter that she’d probably stay trapped in her passionless marriage for the rest of her life. Thus began the production of an episode for The Oprah Winfrey Show on “Wives Who Confess They are Gay.”

Queer married men have been addressed on Oprah in the past: In April 2004, a show about men living on the “down low” aired, while in September of this year, former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey appeared on the show to discuss “His Gay Sex Scandal.” On today’s show, women had a chance to tell their stories.

Once the producers began conducting research for the show–including interviews with more than one hundred women–they kept hearing the name Joanne Fleisher. Fleisher has a popular website, Lavender Visions, which serves as a resource for women questioning their sexuality. In late 2005, Joanne published her book Living Two Lives: A Married Women’s Guide to Loving Women (Alyson Books).

Fleisher, a therapist in the Philadelphia area, received a phone call from an Oprah Winfrey Show producer asking for assistance in finding married women who are lesbians. Fleisher explained that they would have difficulty finding women currently married to men who would be willing to appear on TV if they’re in the middle of figuring out their sexuality. But she did agree to post the query on her website’s message board and offered to send them a copy of her book.

As the email responses started coming in to Fleisher, she forwarded them to the show’s producers. A few days later, she received another call asking if she had ever been interviewed on TV. She had, and sent the Oprah producers a copy of the tape. Shortly thereafter, Fleisher was on a plane headed toward Chicago to serve as the “expert” for the Oprah married lesbians episode.

Prior to her departure, Fleisher had been advised not to appear on the show by some acquaintances who were displeased with the way in which Oprah had handled the “Down Low” episode. Fleisher, who had not seen that show, felt strongly that it was important for her to go so that she might reach isolated women viewers who may be unaware of the resources available to them.

Fleisher herself knew that isolation. In 1979, while living with her husband of twelve years and their two children in the suburbs, her world changed when she found herself in love with another woman. She found few resources for the pain, fear, and confusion she was experiencing.

About four months after she left her husband, when she was 34, she met the woman who would become her long-term partner. Fleisher’s daughters were seven and nine at the time. Her partner, with whom Fleisher has been for 28 years, helped raise the girls. Fleisher’s ex-husband, who had shared custody, later remarried. They have a friendly relationship now, though there was a great deal of pain at the time of their divorce.

As part of Fleisher’s life change, she became a licensed clinical social work specializing in women’s issues and lesbian and gay concerns. Her practice has grown to include groups, weekend workshops, and even telephone support groups for women outside the Philadelphia area. She is also moderator of an online Q&A message board for heterosexually married lesbians.

Fleisher spoke to AfterEllen.com after the taping of the Oprah episode, both before and after the episode had aired. She felt that Oprah herself was very open to hearing what others had to say and that the audience, too, was very engaged and respectful. Fleisher also wasn’t surprised, since this was, after all, a talk show for television, that some dramatic elements were emphasized and that the women selected to speak were all conventionally attractive.

“They plucked a small element from the community, a very intriguing element, but a small one. The women were all interesting and nice to look at, though not a representative cross-section,” Fleisher remarked.

One couple in particular, Nikki and Carole, were both attractive in a model-like way, even joking together about sharing the same lipstick color. They both spoke about how the world stopped when they first saw each other – instant attraction. Fleisher felt that their inclusion was useful because it helped to show the excitement of discovering an attraction to another woman. And the in-home tape of Nikki and Carole revealed the playfulness of their relationship. “They helped make a lesbian relationship more real in some ways, even if neither of them looks like the average lesbian, or even the average woman,” Fleisher said.

One of the more dramatic elements, emphasized in the commercials for the show prior to its airing, was something Oprah said she’d “never heard of before”: Joe, the ex-husband of Chris, the first woman Oprah interviewed, came out as gay a few years after Chris came out as a lesbian. Oprah interviewed both of them, their current same-sex partners, and one of their teenaged-sons, Alex, 14.

Alex said he was proud of both of his parents for being out, and feels that he’s very lucky to have four loving parents. Oprah was encouraging and supportive of Alex, saying that 14 was one of her hardest years, and she knows how terrible other kids can be.

Oprah then introduced Joanne Fleisher as someone who has “counseled hundreds of married women who are attracted to other women.” She asked Fleisher how common it was for married women to come out as lesbian, was it more common now because homosexuality is a bit more accepted in society. Fleisher replied that it’s certainly more visible now. She stressed the role of the Internet, that woman have access to information about sexuality in ways they didn’t in the past. Fleisher’s website has been online for nearly ten years.

Several times during the broadcast, Oprah remarked that from everything she’d read and heard from gay friends, people “always know they’re gay,” though they may sometimes suppress it. Fleisher said that’s not always the case, and pointed out that some of Oprah’s interviewees said they didn’t know until they were older. She explained that some women don’t get to know their true sexuality until they get to know themselves better, as they mature.

It’s interesting that Oprah, who outwardly is very comfortable around lesbians and gays and somewhat knowledgeable about LGBT issues, says that she never knew there was such a thing as the Kinsey scale. She says she knew there was a range of sexuality but not that there was an actual measure. (How this got past her, even after the recent Liam Neeson film Kinsey was released, is curious.)

What’s even more curious is that Oprah can accept that there’s a continuum of sexuality but finds it harder to believe that there can likewise be a continuum of coming out experiences – with some folks knowing and accepting their sexuality from early on, others who had an idea early on but suppressed it for a variety of reasons, to those who truly did not have a clue until they happened to fall for someone of the same sex.

One thing I personally find annoying is Oprah’s seeming refusal to use the word lesbian unless she’s reading a direct quote from an email or book. She consistently uses gay even if the woman speaking with her consistently uses lesbian. True, not every woman-loving-woman embraces that word, but when someone does, generally it’s respectful to use the term someone claims for themselves.

Bisexuality was touched on briefly, as when Jo-Ann and John shared their story. John told Oprah that he always knew Jo-Ann had “a bit of bisexuality in her,” because when they were first dating, she told him that she’d been attracted to women. Apparently none of the women who appeared on the show today currently self-identify as bisexual.

And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that no one mentioned polyamory. Nikki said she thought she had three choices: stay in her marriage and be unhappy; stay in her marriage and have affairs with women; or leave her marriage. For some women, especially women who identify more as bisexual, a fourth option could be to stay in the marriage but make the transition to a polyamorous relationship. Perhaps in a future episode Oprah can take on that topic.

Fleisher checked in with us after viewing the show today, and said that she was pleased that the producers retained as much content as they did. One of the three segments featuring her input was not aired, but Fleisher wasn’t disappointed because she felt that it wouldn’t have added much to that particular discussion.

She’s very pleased that they not only mentioned her book, Living Two Lives, but also showed its cover. Oprah referred to passages from the book when speaking with Fleisher during the show, appearing to have read at least some of it. That’s great news for Fleisher and her publisher, Alyson; Oprah’s power to sell books is legendary.

Overall, Fleisher has good feelings about the whole Oprah experience and the resulting show. “It was interesting, and hopefully there will be positive things coming from the show.”

When we spoke prior to the airing of the final, edited show, Fleisher mentioned being impressed with the input from the audience members, especially a woman, who is a radio announcer, who told her own moving coming out story. None of the interplay with the audience was included in the final episode, which is a shame. Especially considering that some of the audience members telling their stories were women of color, while all but one of the participants in the show that aired were white. Hopefully some of that content may be available in the future on oprah.com in the “After the Show” feature.

During the show, Nikki expressed her hope that women who are in situations similar to her own will hear that they’re not alone, and that there are resources and support available–including Joanne Fleisher’s website and book.

Nikki also said that staying in your marriage when it doesn’t feel right doesn’t do anybody any favors. She cautioned, “You’re not giving your full self to your husband or to yourself.”

Authenticity was certainly a theme of this show. Oprah spoke to some of the husbands about their reactions when their wives came out – hurt, surprise, grief – and seemed surprised that they didn’t hold lingering grudges. Rather, they all expressed the importance of their wives ultimately being true to themselves.

Oprah’s final word: “Whatever your secret, live your own truth; life is too short.”

Originally published AfterEllen.com, October, 2006

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