May 25, 2011 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Oprah’s gayest shows
Oprah Winfrey

Oprah, even in her early years, never shied from LGBT topics on her eponymous show, which ended its run this week. (Photo courtesy of Harpo Productions)

Everybody knows Oprah ended her eponymous talk show this week, but one thing missed in the mainstream hoopla was how often and unabashedly she dealt with LGBT topics during her 25-year run.

Oprah and her flock have consistently denied speculation that she herself may be gay. Gay OWN talk show host Brad Lamm told the Blade in March the question has lingered so long he finds it “offensive.” Winfrey confessed frustration over the issue to Barbara Walters in a 2010 interview because its persistence, she said, implied dishonesty on her part.

A look back through the topics of the show’s 4,561 episodes reveals a bounty of LGBT guests, perhaps none more memorable than a 1987 landmark episode that found Oprah visiting Williamson, W.Va. (population: 5,600) to interview Mike Sisco, a gay man who’d contracted AIDS while living in Dallas and who’d returned home to his family in West Virginia.

Word had spread in the small town that Sisco had AIDS and hysteria ensued when he went swimming in a public swimming pool. Sisco told Oprah residents were fleeing “like people do in those science fiction movies when they see Godzilla in the street or something.” The mayor closed the pool and Sisco was ostracized.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah interviews the late Mike Sisco in his hometown of Williamson, W.Va., in 1987. Sisco, who was gay and had AIDS, caused hysteria by swimming in a public pool. (Photo courtesy of Harpo Productions)

It was the height of AIDS hysteria when confusion about how the disease could be contracted was at its peak. Sisco said he agreed to do the show to help educate the public. Rumors were running rampant in the town that Sisco had been seen spitting on food at the local McDonald’s and on produce at a grocery store.

“Mike Sisco’s story is heartbreaking because it shows the reactions/actions of human beings when fear takes hold, when ignorance is abundant and when there is a mob mentality,” blogger Lola Nicole wrote. “[He] went to be with his family so they could care for him, so he could feel loved. He got exactly the opposite.”

Last September, as Oprah started her final season, she visited Sisco’s three sisters, Patricia, Tina and Anna. Sisco died in 1996 and controversy surrounded him until the bitter end — a family fight ensued about where he could be buried. In the ensuing years, his sister Anna had come out as a lesbian.

Oprah also interviewed several of the residents who’d been against Sisco’s presence in the original episode. Some said they’d wished they’d been more compassionate.

Oprah said her goal in doing both episodes was to remind people to be compassionate.

“I think that is the complete message of this whole series we did here today and 23 years ago,” she said at a press conference after the 2010 episode. “I understand people’s fear because in 1987 we still didn’t know everything and it’s understandable that people would have questions and what was represented here in Williamson really was a microcosm for the country. We used Williamson as a symbol for what was going on in the rest of the country.”

Other famous LGBT-related episodes include:

  • Gay pianist Liberace made his final public appearance on the show on a Christmas Day episode in 1986. He died about six weeks later of AIDS-related complications.
  • Ellen DeGeneres came out on a 1997 episode. Oprah also appeared on her sitcom as her therapist.
  • A 2003 episode that had run without incident initially, was rerun in 2005 and caused a major controversy because a guest gave an explanation of rimming, albeit in a hetero context.
  • A landmark 2004 episode called “A Secret Sex World: Living on the Down Low” brought the largely black phenomenon of married men having sex with men on the side to light. It became part of the national lexicon.
  • Last November, singer Ricky Martin discussed being a gay father.
  • In March, “Family Ties” actress Meredith Baxter discussed being a lesbian.
  • A January episode was devoted to coming out.
  • In May, 2008, Oprah interviewed Cher and Tina Turner at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Oprah idol Diana Ross also made a handful of appearances on the show.
  • An October 2006 episode was called “Wives Confess They are Gay.”
  • A March, 2009 episode was called “Women Leaving Men for Other Women.”
  • The “Will & Grace” cast convened in May 2006 for a farewell episode.
  • In July, 2010 former high school football quarterback Kimberly Reed discussed her late ‘90s sex change. Her documentary was shown at Reel Affirmations.
  • And just weeks ago, Oprah interviewed Chaz Bono about his transition and new documentary and book.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

1 Comment
  • My partner and I write books primarily for women who are coming out, and since Nov of 2003 I have run a support group that has helped over 5,000 women worldwide. In November of 2010, some of the support group members nominated me for the Oprah Heroes Show. I had no idea that they were doing this. A few weeks later one of Oprah’s booking assistants called me, and said that because of the things the members of the coming out group had written, the Oprah Show really wanted me to be a part of their last Hero’s show ever. I thought, “How could I refuse my dream of being on Oprah’s Show?” so I went.

    Everyone I spoke to before the Hero’s Show taping was doing heart-felt work for their communities. From working with the homeless to counseling victims of rape in Africa, I felt honored to be in the presence of so many people who freely give of themselves. NONE of us knew that the Oprah’s Hero’s Show was actually going to be the final Oprah’s Favorite Things Show! It was shocking, to say the least, but it was also really great to feel the appreciation from Oprah and her staff for the work that all the heroes who attended that show do.

    The greatest thing was being able to see who Oprah really is. SHE IS AWESOME in person–so much light around her it’s unreal, and yet so down-to-earth and caring. I wish that everyone could have seen what we got to see that day–amazing how she could touch your heart, and in-between every take was like gold to me. The material things she gave us all are nice, the new VW Beetle really rocks, but the real gift was being able to see who Oprah really is–an incredible human being with A LOT of joy, and a big dose of being a funny prankster. I was honored to be able to see the real person shining through, and it was incredible to be invited because of the work with the Support for Lesbians Coming Out group.

    Tracey Stevens
    Co-author “How To Be A Happy Lesbian: A Coming Out Guide”
    “Coming Out Advice for Lesbians and Bisexual Women”

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